By Erik Illies
Productive day on site today for my studio class. Our project location is downtown East St. Louis and has probably more issues than potential... but that's the challenge! Admittedly, I had some preconceived notions about this project specifically because of the site location, and now that we've toured the area and met with a local developer I feel pretty much the same. I live about 15 minutes from East Side, and used to drive into downtown at night with friends for fun. That being said, we weren't the smartest teenagers. The whole point was to get the thrill of adrenaline from driving into the scariest place we knew. Stop signs were meaningless, unless you were picking up some cheap weed or blow. Most of the time there were other cars slowly driving around almost seeming lost, but they aren't... they circle blocks of their territory waiting for someone to pull up to their corner and stop. Anytime you stopped on the street shadows would start to move and the wandering cars would quickly catch to you or throw it in reverse to "see what you want". We knew this going in and would play a little game with the drug dealers by slowly creeping to a curb or stop sign for just long enough to get their attention, and as soon as the reverse lights came on we were gone. This was all good and sufficiently excited us from the ever present element of danger, until the time they got out of they're car.
It was the beginning of any normal "urban jungle safari" and we hadn't gotten very far into the "bad neighborhoods". I felt relatively safe still since the streets were still lit and traffic was somewhat constant... that was the big mistake of the first mistake of continuing to tempt chance in this area. The next mistake was not paying attention to the g-ride cutlass that had been following us since we pulled off the highway. And the bigger still mistake was stopping at the stop sign. I had no idea anything was "up" until I saw the cutlass in my peripheral vision very close to my car. It pulled up close and at an angle to try and block us. Almost just as quickly some people started moving out of the shadows of buildings and down the sidewalk toward us. I hadn't yet decided to panic because the normal routine was "we would play like we were interested in making a deal, and then flake and they would recede", and I thought that as soon as I started to move again they would assume they made a mistake. It was no mistake, they wanted the car! I made instant eye contact with the passenger and glanced quickly enough to notice the 3 other guys in the car with him as I was starting to pull away. But by this time the people of the shadows were in the street in front of my car and along side of us. The passenger never blinked while opening his door and starting to step out toward us, and I don't think I blinked either while I shifted into reverse to get the hell out of there. For whatever reason they didn't chase, but three of the four of them were already out of their car by the time I was spinning my car around in the other direction. We had to assume they wanted the car because as we were making a neat 3 point turn in the middle of this street we clearly saw the guns they had in hand.
That was about 10 years ago now, and I still feel like an idiot for making those trips. Seriously, who the hell am I to play a game with what those people called life? It would be easy to say they shouldn't have been there selling drugs or jacking cars in the first place, and I should have been able to freely drive through their neighborhood at 3am, but I started the story admitting that I knew what we were getting into. I am totally to blame for that incident and don't make excuses for it, besides the fact I was young and very dumb. The more I think about that night, and the kinds of lives some people in East St. Louis have to/ or maybe even choose to live, the more I understand how ignorant I am to that world. Even after living nearby for over 25 years I can't relate to them and never will. Oh well, now I can make it up to them by offering an irresponsible development program that no one intends to follow up with.