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Abandoned in the Heartland

Abandoned in the Heartland: Work, Family, and Living in East St. Louis

Jennifer F. Hamer
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 262
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  • Book Info
    Abandoned in the Heartland
    Book Description:

    Urban poverty, along with all of its poignant manifestations, is moving from city centers to working-class and industrial suburbs in contemporary America. Nowhere is this more evident than in East St. Louis, Illinois. Once a thriving manufacturing and transportation center, East St. Louis is now known for its unemployment, crime, and collapsing infrastructure.Abandoned in the Heartlandtakes us into the lives of East St. Louis's predominantly African American residents to find out what has happened since industry abandoned the city, and jobs, quality schools, and city services disappeared, leaving people isolated and imperiled. Jennifer Hamer introduces men who search for meaning and opportunity in dead-end jobs, women who often take on caretaking responsibilities until well into old age, and parents who have the impossible task of protecting their children in this dangerous, and literally toxic, environment. Illustrated with historical and contemporary photographs showing how the city has changed over time, this book, full of stories of courage and fortitude, offers a powerful vision of the transformed circumstances of life in one American suburb.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95017-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. 1-29)

    East St. Louis, Illinois, embodies at least three core elements of American national life: it is a suburb in the heartland, it is predominantly African American, and it is poor. Taken together, these three elements overlap one another and overwhelm the popular imagination, for they also, counterintuitively, contradict one another. The goal of this book is to capture these complexities in the glorious resilience of East St. Louisans, as well as in the more commonly observed desperation and helplessness of the city itself.

    What does this messy picture mean for the United States as a whole? I contend that embedded...

  6. CHAPTER ONE In America’s Heartland
    (pp. 30-57)

    These are hard times, and the struggle for American workingclass men and women to maintain dignity, work, and family life is a national one. Nowhere is this struggle sharper than in America’s heartland and especially in East St. Louis, Illinois. Life here is mired in issues of safety, damaged infrastructure, and poor prospects for the future. Acute distress defines every corner of the municipal landscape.

    Located on the southwestern edge of Illinois, East St. Louis is part of the larger St. Louis, Missouri, metropolitan area. Five hours from Chicago and almost four hours from Indianapolis, East St. Louis—once a...

  7. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  8. CHAPTER TWO East St. Louisans and Their Cars
    (pp. 58-75)

    Few, if any, accoutrements of American materialism embody the iconography of suburbia quite like the private automobile. The car represents freedom and spontaneity and is also a commodity and a status symbol in its own right.

    When you start considering East St. Louis as an inner-ring suburb, rather than simply a small-urban collection of innercity pathologies, the car problems of its citizens stop looking like the petty nuisances of poverty. Those nuisances magnify into Shakespearean agonies, torturing East St. Louisans twenty-four/seven in their daily personal interactions, in their professional options, and in their sense of self-worth and full participation in...

  9. CHAPTER THREE Work and Meaning in a Jobless Suburb
    (pp. 76-97)

    For most Americans, voluntarily leaving one job for another usually is a mark of advancement. You expect your moves through the workforce to better your life in some important way: a raise, a promotion to a new title or set of responsibilities that in turn can be parlayed into another vertical breakthrough. But for Maxwell Lawson, and so many East St. Louisans whose stories I tracked, jobs were lifeless, dead-end things, passed around in meaningless lateral moves that added up at best to shuffling the deck.

    Maxwell, a twenty-one-year-old cashier at the Chocolate Factory, considered himself a hard worker. Since...

  10. CHAPTER FOUR Hustling, Clean and Dirty
    (pp. 98-124)

    With only half of working-age East St. Louisans employed and 35 percent of the population below the federally defined poverty level, life is austere. Even though recent federal poverty guidelines specify that a family of four earning above $18,850 annually does not qualify for assistance, half of the city’s households receive some form of public welfare assistance. But cash, food, and housing assistance generally provide less than the minimum requirements for family maintenance. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that families earning less than $40,700 a year spend an average of $6,000 to $8,000 annually on children,¹ but...

  11. CHAPTER FIVE “Around here, women never get done workin’ ”
    (pp. 125-153)

    From whatever angle you examine them and with whatever terms you use, the lives of most East St. Louisans are distinguished by their desperation. They aspire to the same things middle-class Americans attain—stability, security, family—but at every turn, public resources and infrastructure fail to support them in that quest. In the face of these circumstances, the unorthodox strategies adopted by many represent rational economic decisions, even if equally doomed to frustration and failure.

    How do these expectations get internalized and play out over the course of lives of poverty in a place that was long ago so systematically...

  12. CHAPTER SIX “Gotta protect my own”
    (pp. 154-179)

    In May 2001, the following letter from a serial killer was sent to a reporter for theSt. Louis Post-Dispatch,the major paper in the St. Louis metropolitan area: “Dear Bill: nice sob story about Teresa Wilson. Write one about Greenwade write a good one and I’ll tell you where many others are. To prove I’m real here’s directions to number seventeen. Search in a fifty-yard radius from the X. Put the story in the Sunday paper like the last.”¹

    One month later, Maury Troy Travis sat in jail, charged with the kidnapping and killing of two women and linked...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN The Cost of Abandonment
    (pp. 180-184)

    The stories of African Americans in southwestern Illinois are contained in the history of my own family. My maternal greatgrandfather settled in Pin Oak, a small rural community made up of mostly black farm families. His family’s “Lewis Farm” grew tomatoes for the Brooks Ketchup company, located just a few miles west in Collinsville, a suburb of the St. Louis metropolitan area.

    As agricultural life grew more difficult and greater educational and economic opportunities were evident in larger towns and cities, the Lewises did what so many African American families did during the early decades of the twentieth century: they...

  14. Epilogue: Obama and East St. Louis
    (pp. 185-192)

    The historic election of Barack Obama, cause for euphoria throughout the American black community, had special poignance in Illinois. Previously, the state of Lincoln had produced the first African American elected to Congress in the twentieth century and two of the century’s three black senators (Obama included). The Obama phenomenon simultaneously served as a potent role model for black youth and formidable proof that racial barriers cannot prevent African Americans from succeeding.

    Yet, other contemporary developments are reminders that the story of American race relations will remain fraught and complex. On the eve of Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, for...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 193-214)
    (pp. 215-230)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 231-244)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 245-246)