Riverside City Afloat, But Not Aright

E.A. Torriero, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 13

EAST ST. LOUIS—The downtown is mostly boarded up, save for an aging pawnshop, a barbershop and a bank. The schools remain among the worst in the state. Neighborhoods are crumbling, traffic lights don’t work, and people are afraid to walk the streets at night.

But impoverished East St. Louis is at least alive. And the city owes its survival—and likely its future—to gambling.

More than a decade ago, the riverboat Casino Queen arrived on the East St. Louis side of the Mississippi River. Since then, the city has received $10 million a year—half its operating budget—from gaming. Gambling receipts have kept the East St. Louis government functioning, bankrolling everything from policemen’s salaries to keeping the few working street lamps lit.

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The city has no movie theaters or concert halls and no major restaurants except at the casino. Stores along the downtown streets are mostly boarded up and piles of rubble are on lots throughout the city. Streets are pocked with potholes.

The city has also been tainted with scandals.

Police Chief Ron Matthews was indicted in January for allegedly obstructing the investigation of an ex-city auxiliary policeman whose gun was seized in a fight with other police officers. He was also charged with lying to a grand jury.

Kelvin Ellis, the director of regulatory affairs, was indicted for allegedly plotting to kill a witness in a federal grand jury voter-fraud probe. He is also accused by federal prosecutors of running an escort service out of his City Hall office.

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A once-thriving industrial city that succumbed to economic decline and white flight, East St. Louis was on the brink of bankruptcy when the Casino Queen opened in July 1993.

The government was broke. East St. Louis had few functioning police cars or firetrucks. Garbage was piled high in the streets because the city couldn’t afford to pick it up. City Hall was deeded over to a convicted felon who was awarded the building to satisfy a judgment in his lawsuit alleging jail abuse.

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