During the 2012 presidential race, Saturday Night Live had a skit in which clueless millionaire candidate Mitt Romney (played by Jason Sudeikis) said he had never felt more at home than in East St. Louis, to which Mayor Alvin Parks (played by Keenan Thompson) responded: "Are you kidding me? This place is a hellhole!"
The skit created a bit of controversy, but like most internet-oriented debates, all that was soon forgotten. However, the problems that have pervaded East St. Louis still went on like they had been for decades -- and the people living there were still affected by them. That's why journalist Goldie Taylor is making "The Other Side of Grace," a documentary about her hometown that she hopes will give people a better understanding about a beleaguered city that has been described as the most dangerous in the United States.
Recalling the SNL skit, Taylor was disappointed, but explains the "hellhole" joke was a symptom of East St. Louis' reputation.
"While that may not be specifically true, the reality is that people live lives in East St. Louis on a day-to-day basis. It's a picture of people who are fighting to survive, cope, and make it every day," she tells Daily RFT.
Taylor, who was raised in East St. Louis and now works as a commentator for MSNBC and a columnist for theGrio.com, says she's making "The Other Side of Grace" to shed light on how East St. Louis became so riddled with problems over the past 30 years, but also how the current city contrasts with how she remembers it while growing up.
"In the 70's, we didn't have an idyllic life, but we had a life that was livable," she says. "There were jobs, decent housing, schools were great, neighbors invested in one another. There were businesses that were open -- five and dime stores, sit-down restaurants, insurance companies, you could shop on Collinsville Avenue -- it still existed back then."
However, changes were happening even back then, Taylor says. And systemic problems as a result of public policy changes began to put a stranglehold on the city.
"The city was clearly in decline at that point," she explains. "We had really survived the economic flight that happened in the 50's and 60's but then crack hit the streets, we began to fight a war on drugs, we created this school-to-prison pipeline that exists in cities around this country, we began to break down families with brand-new welfare policies."
The story of East St. Louis is not unlike the story of other big cities in the U.S. that have experienced decline, says Taylor.
"I think there are other cities across this country that are suffering under the weight of the same types of pathologies: guns and violence, poverty, environmental degradation, economic flight," she says.
But for Taylor, making a documentary about her home city requires going beyond policy analyses. She looks at the drastic changes that have occurred on the streets she grew up on, such as the abandoned homes that once housed people she knew as a child, as well as reconciling with the death toll that has impacted her family.
"We are, for all practical purposes, a family of women -- and that's hard," she says. "It's hard on our children, it's hard on us as human beings, it's debilitating to some extent to look around your family and see no grown men. And even among the cousins that I have, there are no old men in my family. Nobody gets to be old and that's tragedy for me."
The documentary might sound a bit gloomy, Taylor tells us that another reason she is doing this project is to show that East St. Louis residents are also actively working to revive the city, whether it's by trying to improve overall conditions or simply taking care of their own family.
"You will find that there are people working hard everyday to make the absolute best of their circumstances," she says. "The hope is in the individual lives, the people working hard to better the city. Despite all of the things thrown at East St. Louis, it's still standing."
The documentary is currently in production and Taylor is raising funds via Kickstarter to finish it. So far, she has received support from some big names, including musicians Questlove and Big Boi, as well as Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed and comedian Pia Glenn.
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