Some people identify East St. Louis as the hometown of Miles Davis, but many more associate the city as the cinematic hellhole from National Lampoon's Vacation, where Chevy Chase's Griswold family gets its wayward station wagon stripped by a gang of shamelessly stereotyped black thugs.
Thanks to the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), lost or rerouted motorists probably won't have to experience such terror if they inadvertently veer toward the Lou's stigmatized east-side stepbrother.
In fact, after test-driving IDOT's officially sanctioned detour for westbound motorists seeking to get to southbound Illinois Route 3 from westbound Interstates 55 and 70, one could be forgiven for wondering whether East St. Louis has any roads at all.
Here's how the detour works -- or doesn't:
Rather than having drivers take the Route 3 southbound exit before crossing the Mississippi, IDOT is sending motorists across the river, onto westbound Highway 44 to the Broadway/Soulard exit, then onto southbound Broadway to a right turn on Marion Street by the Soulard Farmer's Market, back onto eastbound I-55/70 via a stealth entrance ramp by the old diaper factory, and finally over the river -- again -- to the functional southbound Route 3 exit available to eastbound travelers.
"I don't know why they would do that, other than to keep [drivers] from going through East St. Louis," says Norman Ross, president of the Greater East St. Louis Chamber of Commerce. "This happens all the time. You used to get Illinois tourist maps, and East St. Louis would not be on the map."
Call it the Griswold Syndrome -- every time someone raises the possibility of sending actual human beings into East St. Louis' downtrodden downtown, people automatically fear the family car's hubcaps will be jacked.
"When they put the [gambling] boat here, there was a big controversy, like, 'Who would want to go to East St. Louis? It won't make any money,'" recalls Ross. "After they set it up, it was the fifth top tourist attraction in the state of Illinois."
The closure of the westbound freeway ramp onto southbound Route 3 began on April 5 and is scheduled to last until June 7. IDOT estimates that, in light traffic, the detour will add ten minutes per trip for the 6,000 motorists who make the daily commute. Fair enough: Resurfacing happens. But without the benefit of an authoritative book on the history of American highway detours, one has to imagine this to be one of the most circuitous reroutes ever devised.
"If there would have been a suitable detour through downtown, we probably would have tried to reach an agreement with the city, but there wasn't one," explains Jeff Church, an engineer for IDOT. "As far as any other local streets that could get around that, I'm not really that familiar with them, so I'm not sure if there were any that could or could not have been utilized for the detour."
Fortunately for Church -- and for westbound travelers seeking to avoid morning rush hour on the Poplar Street Bridge -- the Riverfront Times is quite familiar with the streets of East St. Louis and recently commissioned a gray Buick to chart the following "Buick Detour," a route that doesn't require motorists to cross the Big Muddy twice:
Take the left-lane exit off westbound I-55/70 to Third Street in downtown East St. Louis, hang a left onto Broadway (not to be confused with the aforementioned St. Louis city street with the same name), and take a right onto Eighth Street -- which turns into Mississippi Avenue and spills out onto southbound Route 3. Additional travel time: approximately three minutes -- and not a speck of traffic to speak of.
So why isn't this the official Route 3 detour?
"Because of the truck traffic," says Church, noting that approximately 480 large trucks make the trip daily. "We have to make sure any detour that's set up can accommodate truck turns, and that's the best option."
If all goes according to plan, the resurfacing of the westbound ramp will be complete by June 7. Then the eastbound ramp, which serves motorists traveling to Route 3 from Missouri, will be closed until August 1 for a similar round of touching up. This time, IDOT's official detour calls for motorists to get off at Fourth Street, the lone eastbound freeway exit directly serving East St. Louis' hardscrabble downtown business district, adding an additional five minutes to the average motorist's trip.
But instead of requiring vehicles to make a couple of left turns on and off Broadway, the agency spent $300,000 on a permanent U-turn ramp off the Fourth Street exit.
"The ramp was built specifically to provide a detour for this project," explains Church. "No city streets are utilized for the Fourth Street detour."
When presented with the Buick Detour, Church replies, "It may be difficult for trucks to make all the turning requirements."
Perhaps -- but the same could be said for the wealth of turns required by IDOT's official river-crossing detour. And Church concedes that it would be perfectly legal for large trucks, which are sometimes banned from select roadways, to utilize the Buick Detour.
But East St. Louis city manager Bob Storman has no qualms with IDOT's decision to circumvent downtown East St. Louis.
"People who live in Cahokia or East St. Louis are using that route," Storman says of the Buick Detour. "If everything was going through there, it would congest it."
But is congestion really such a bad thing for a dormant downtown center?
"A little congestion could be good for East St. Louis," says Andrew Theising, professor of political science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and author of Made in USA: East St. Louis. "At the same time, I'm not sure East St. Louis has the kind of businesses downtown where you say, 'Gee, I think I'm going to stop and pick something up here.' It's a Catch-22."
Lifelong East St. Louisan Ron Malloyd opened his downtown eatery, Javon's Restaurant, two years ago. Like Ross, Malloyd is perplexed by IDOT's detour strategy -- and by Storman's acquiescence.
"The Department of Transportation has routed the traffic around East St. Louis for years," says Malloyd. "Retail has felt the impact. I understand decaying buildings [are] a deterrent to any type of traffic, period, but I think city officials need to stop bickering amongst one another, get off their tails and do something for downtown."
Randy Dziurdzy, who manages Route 3 OTB in Sauget and commutes daily from the Missouri side of the river, is none too thrilled about having to traverse both sides of the interstate every day.
"Oh gosh, that's the way I come to work," says Dziurdzy. "It's going to impact me."
As for the off-track betting facility he runs, Dziurdzy says business is down relative to last year. Although he feels that the current and impending closures will be equally detrimental to Route 3 commerce, Dziurdzy states that the Fourth Street detour -- U-turn ramp and all -- might discourage Missouri drivers from making the Sauget pilgrimage in the first place.
"Crime -- no reason to sugarcoat it," he says.
Roll on, Griswolds.