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"You Don't Just Grouch"

Helen Hudlin saw the blight in her East St. Louis neighborhood and "just got busy"


On a warm summer day, the unmistakable stench of garbage and decay fills the air. Black flies, large as bumble bees, dive around old mattresses, sofas and burned-out television sets. To the left of the makeshift dump sits an even bigger eyesore, an empty and crumbling building at 359 S. 27th Street in East St. Louis. Dressed in a white hat and white sweatsuit, Helen Hudlin holds her nose, picks her way past the garbage and stares at the challenge before her. Peering at the caved-in shell of brick and rubble, Hudlin asks, "Can you believe this? How can they let this just sit -- and right behind a school? It just isn't right." Pointing to a trailer bed overflowing with furniture and leaking garbage bags, sitting alongside a fence around the Alta Sita Elementary School, she says, "That was supposed to be used to haul the bricks away. When it was left here, it became another place to dump."

The eyesore has outlasted the politicians who promised to clean it up. It is part of the deep-rooted blight that has plagued the Alta Sita neighborhood. But Hudlin and the Alta Sita Neighborhood Association, over which she presides, are relentless in their mission to reclaim their community. Every morning, Hudlin calls members of the East St. Louis City Council or City Manager Harvey Henderson. "We will just keep calling until it gets done," she says with a mix of resentment and resolve. To nobody in particular, Hudlin says, "Oh, it's going to come down. We will make sure of that. After everything we have done, this is our proof we still have lots of things left to do."

If the trash heap is proof of things that need to be done, then Virginia Place, a quaint neighborhood less than two blocks away, is a promise that success for the Alta Sita Neighborhood Association is inevitable.

Located in the heart of East St. Louis, Virginia Place is both a short street and a neighborhood unto its own. Modest two-story Tudors sit next to newly constructed starter homes. Lawns are mowed or in the process of being landscaped. Dogwood and maple trees fill the median in the street. In this neighborhood is the well-kept house where Ike and Tina Turner used to live. Two doors down is the home Hudlin and her husband, Warrington, built with their own hands, stone by stone, in the 1960s. There are little details on the block that are missing in many other East St. Louis neighborhoods: new street signs at Virginia Place and 27th Street, a three-mile walking trail that runs through the neighborhood, a small corner park.

Down the street is the new white bungalow where, just last week, 28-year-old Kimberly Miles became a first-time homeowner. On the corner is the brown brick house the neighborhood association rehabbed to get a policeman to move into the block. "It took us eight years to get that house," Hudlin says, her face scrunching. "Whoo-eee! We had to go to St. Louis and get all the family members to sign. Then we had to fix it up." A satisfied grin crosses her face. "But we got it done, and now there is a police officer living in there. He helps us keep people from the liquor store gathering on that corner."

There are eight new homes on Virginia Place. Hudlin, a petite woman who says she's "past 60 but closer to 70," sees each as a sign of perseverance in the face of lethargic bureaucracy. "Every place where you see a new house," Hudlin says, "that is where a raggedy old house used to sit on a filthy, dirty lot. It didn't happen overnight, but it has happened."

The decline didn't take place overnight, either. Hudlin, a schoolteacher, and her husband, who ran his family's insurance business, moved to Virginia Place in the 1960s, when the neighborhood was a quiet enclave of middle-class blacks. They couldn't get a bank loan because they were black, so the couple built the stone house themselves. "It was a labor of labor," Hudlin says with a laugh. "We didn't have a mortgage, but we had a lot of finishing work to be done. When we moved in, all we had were the bare essentials -- the walls, windows and a furnace."

Virginia Place was a good place to raise a family. A bakery, hardware shop and pharmacy lay within walking distance. The neighbors, with the exception of Ike and Tina Turner and gospel singer Brother Joe May, were mostly teachers and other white-collar professionals. "When we moved here, it was nice and the neighborhood was pretty. We had so many more trees," Hudlin says. "The streets were still being swept by the city, and the trees were still being trimmed."

By the early '70s, white flight had changed things. East St. Louis' population fell from a peak of 82,295 in 1950 to 68,000 in 1970. Blacks made up 69 percent of the city, up from 44 percent in 1960. Whites were moving in droves "up the bluff" to Belleville and beyond. Today, the city has 31,542 residents, almost 98 percent of them African-American. "All the whites moved out, and the city lost money," Hudlin says. "They stopped trimming the trees, and they stopped sweeping," The bakery and hardware store were destroyed in race riots. Older homeowners died, and houses in the neighborhood started to sit empty.

"That's when it really became bad," Hudlin says, wincing, "because then the slumlords came. Oh, I hate them the most."

White real-estate speculators such as Arnold Cohn and Edwin Sieron of Belleville started gobbling up the vacant properties. In 1990, Sieron owned 602 parcels in the city, Cohn 523, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The out-of-town owners were interested in making money without spending any on upkeep.

Hudlin hadn't really paid much attention to her changing neighborhood. She was busy getting her doctorate in education from St. Louis University and raising three sons -- Warrington Jr., Reginald and Chris. Reginald and Warrington went to Harvard and Yale, respectively, and became filmmakers. In 1991, they got national attention with their movie House Party. Chris runs Hudlin Insurance, the family's business, which he took over after his father died in 1998.

Hudlin retired and returned to East St. Louis in late 1991. She was stunned at what she saw.

The stately Victorian house next door, which had been in disrepair the last time she was home, was now a charred shell after a fire several months earlier. The city hadn't seen fit to demolish the remains. "My family had been in the insurance business for over 40 years," she says, "and I couldn't get insurance on my own home because of that burned-out building. Parts of it kept falling on my garage. I looked out one day after I retired and said, 'I either have to move or I have to do something.'"

She didn't move -- even when her sons, now successful directors, invited her to move to Beverly Hills.

"I worked all my life," she says. "We built this house, brick by brick, stone by stone. Why should I move now that I am retired and can do things with my money, like travel? Why should I move away from my community? Jews don't do it. Chinese don't do it. Why do all black people have to leave their communities and go where they are not wanted? I think you maintain that which you have. That is my philosophy: You don't just grouch. So I just got busy."

The first thing Hudlin did was make phone calls. Starting as early as 6 a.m. every day, she called an ever-growing list of politicians, public administrators and code enforcers for East St. Louis and St. Clair County. Once, on one of her many visits to City Hall, she met Louis Tiemann, president of the Greater East St. Louis Community Fund, a group set up to administer a $7 million federal judgment against a corporation accused of defrauding city residents. Tiemann's group tackled health, infrastructure and housing issues and eventually awarded Alta Sita a grant to rehab some derelict houses. Tiemann tried to help Hudlin in her mission to get the burned-out home next door to hers demolished.

"At the time, the garbage wasn't being collected in the city," Tiemann says. "It was so bad, some of the streets were blocked off and there were empty lots at almost every corner, filled with old mattresses and televisions. It was an uphill battle for [Hudlin], because no one was taking her seriously. After all, there were hundreds of derelict buildings all over the city. No one was concerned with just one."

In Tiemann, Hudlin's calls found a receptive ear. "I recognized her friendly voice as soon as I picked up the phone," Tiemann says. "She was a very strong person interested in reviving her neighborhood. She was not involved in politics but had a desire to clean up the neighborhood in which she lived."

Hudlin became a frequent presence at City Council meetings. Aldermen turned the other way when they saw her coming. In the meantime, Hudlin's investigation found that Sieron had been paying the taxes on the burned-out house next door, even though he wouldn't clear up the remains or sell the property. Hudlin photographed the derelict property, took it to the county treasurer's office and made sure the photo of the pristine house on record was replaced with her picture of what really existed. She got citations issued against the property and eventually had the city condemn it. But demolishing it was another task altogether.

"I started to understand how things worked in the city," she says. "Once I learned that, I kept calling, making sure they would do the right thing." She laughs. "I kind of get a kick out of beating the system. Most people get tired, but I wasn't going to get tired."

In January 1995, more than three years after making that first phone call, Hudlin looked out her window on a snowy day and was surprised at what she saw. "I had the phone in my hand to start my calls when I looked out and saw them tearing it down," she says. "I was so happy, I put that phone down."

"She was a real trouper," Tiemann says. "She was one person who wouldn't take no for an answer, even if it was from the City Council or administration."

When the house next door came down, an activist was born. "I watched that building come down, and I thought, 'Well, if I can get that done, then I can do more,'" Hudlin says. "I started looking at the raggedy old building behind me."

In March of 1995, Hudlin organized her neighbors and the Alta Sita Neighborhood Association. She researched available grants, purchasing a new computer with one and using it to successfully apply for a $70,000 Community Development Block Grant. The association used $8,000 of the grant funds to buy the pigeon-infested "raggedy old" home behind hers. Volunteers rehabbed the home, which had been vacant since a long-ago murder, and resold it to a low-income family for $40,000. "It was very difficult," Hudlin says. "Most people don't want to fool with the red tape, because you have to be organized and show your capability to finish the project. Then you have to do all the work before you get all the money. We had to gut the entire house and actually took a loss on it, but we saved the home and got somebody in who took care of it."

And so it went, the changes in the neighborhood coming one house at a time. While Hudlin patched together money from block grants, AmerenUE and even the Illinois EPA, other volunteers worked the streets and county offices to track ownership of vacant or abandoned properties. Some belonged to the East St. Louis Housing Authority, others were intestate and still others were owned by out-of-towners such as Cohn and Sieron. Then Hudlin and her troops found a helping hand in Kathleen O'Keefe of the Neighborhood Law Center, a not-for-profit legal-help agency. O'Keefe helped them track ownership and taught them how to buy properties at delinquent-tax sales. Residents regularly attended court hearings on code violations in their neighborhood, and their presence prodded the city to condemn and then demolish substandard structures.

"There is a lack of resources and lack of political will to really enforce the health and sanitation and building codes in the city," O'Keefe says. "It's not fair, but the neighborhoods really have to become the ones who have to be responsible for enforcement. It should be the responsibility of the city government, not the people living in the city. That is why this is such a testament to this neighborhood group and their tenacity. They are willing to do whatever they have to do to take back their community."

Diane Bonner, director of CDBG operations in East St. Louis, says the neighborhood association's success is rooted in its leadership as well as in its approach. "Alta Sita has taken a holistic approach that is not typical of neighborhood associations," Bonner says. "Usually neighborhood organizations focus on one or two issues, but Alta Sita focuses on everything that affects their community. They will attend workshops to increase their knowledge of the system. They have focused on demolishing derelict structures but also have worked toward creating housing."

Says Hudlin: "It is not just about changing the neighborhood -- it is about social justice. We go over, underneath and around if we have to. We do whatever it takes to get it done, and we don't stop until it is done. So many times it has nothing to do with apathy and is about not knowing how to do and what to do. When people find out how to fight, they get busy, and that is what our organization is about. It is about empowering people so they don't feel powerless."

Improving neighborhoods, as Hudlin will attest, is also about improving lives.

"I never thought in a million years that I would be owning my own home at 28," Kimberly Miles says with a grin. "I thought maybe in a few years, and maybe one I would have to fix up. But a new home? Never. But now here I am."

Miles, who is single, has plenty of room in the two-bedroom bungalow, which still smells of fresh paint and new cabinets. Looking around at her home, with the pewter light fixtures and gray marble countertops she picked out, Miles recalls the patience and vigilance required to work the system. In order to qualify for the $30,000 CDBG grant -- which supplemented her annual income of $28,000 as a pharmacy technician -- she had to wade through six months' worth of paperwork. Miles heard about Virginia Place through a friend, which is the typical way in which Alta Sita finds qualified low-income homeowners. Hudlin pointed her in the right direction. She had to provide income-tax forms, income verification from her employer every few months and credit checks. "I wanted to go out and buy new furniture for the house, but I had to be wise and wait," she says. "Every time a credit-card application came in the mail, I would just tear it up and think about moving into my new house."

While the house was being built, Miles was at the site every day. "If there was a nail or stud that looked out of place, I would ask about it," she says. "If I spent less money on a fixture than I was supposed to, I had to make sure it was credited to something else. It took a lot of patience and commitment, even more than I ever imagined. But in the end it was worth it."

Now that she is a homeowner, Miles has become an ally in Hudlin's cause. "I want that mess at the end of the street cleaned up," she says. "This is my neighborhood, and that dump pile right by the school is unsafe. I started calling on it before I moved in."

Hudlin smiles and adds, "Oh, we are going to get that down, I promise. The thing is that once people see a neighborhood that is rejuvenated, they want to stay, and that only helps keep it going."

As Miles discusses working in the neighborhood, Hudlin gets a conspiratorial look. With a wink, she whispers: "She doesn't know it yet, but I am going to be passing things to her. She's already on top of things. I want to retire soon, and there are always things that need to be done."

As for Miles, she seems up to the task. "This is my neighborhood now," she says proudly. "I plan on being here for a long time, and I want to make sure that it continues to be a good place to live."

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