"This Place Is a Hellhole":
Popular Culture and the Racial Othering of
East St. Louis, Illinois

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2019, Volume 18, Issue 2


Jennifer Sumida
Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville

Bryan Jack
Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville

My cousin Roscoe, Slayton's oldest boy, from his second marriage up in Illinois. He was raised in East St. Louis by his momma's people, where they do things different.

–James McMurtry, Choctaw Bingo


On April 17, 2012, during the campaign to determine the Republican presidential nominee, Saturday Night Live aired a skit parodying Mitt Romney's "claim to be interested in things we know he's not interested in." The skit, a mock C-Span broadcast, shows Romney (Jason Sudekis) standing in front of and pandering to numerous groups; for example, in front of the ASPCA, he states that his goal is to be known as the "cat neutering president," and in front of the Association of Professional Piercers, he brags about his "nipple rings." Romney is clearly the butt of the joke – the skit does not mock the various interest groups who are little more than props. However, the skit has a different tone when it shows Romney appearing in front of the "East St. Louis, Illinois Chamber of Commerce." Unlike the other vignettes, in the East St. Louis section, Romney is not the joke's only target. The skit, intended to parody Romney's pandering, also mocks East St. Louis as a place, highlighting East St. Louis's blackness and perpetuating negative perceptions of the community.

To the East St. Louis Chamber of Commerce, Romney says that he and his wife had lived and traveled all over the world, but East St. Louis is "the only place that truly felt like home." The apparently absurd image of the white, wealthy Romneys living in black, impoverished East St. Louis draws knowing laughs from the live studio audience. To reinforce visually the racial dynamics at play, out of the entire skit, the East St. Louis group is the only one featuring black cast members. The actor Keenan Mitchell, portraying East St. Louis's mayor, responds to "Romney's" praise by stating, "Are you crazy? This is a hellhole." When "Romney" continues to commend the community, calling it "a lovely place," Mitchell replies, "Trust me, I'm the mayor. This place is a hellhole." Another East St. Louisian exclaims, "We hate it here!" – prompting more laughs from the audience.

The skit is just one recent example of popular culture trafficking in long-standing negative racial stereotypes of East St. Louis, coding it as a "black place," and using a racial lens to explain the negative aspects of the community. The depictions often set an aberrant East St. Louis in opposition to a purportedly neutral, white, suburban American society, reinforcing the idea that white people do not belong in East St. Louis. In popular culture, particularly film and television, the city represents inner city, black ghettoes and serves as a manifestation of American society's racial fears and discomfort with black places (Hayward 44). These representations and stereotypes have real world consequences – including, as discussed later in this essay, a state highway detour designed to route fearful drivers away from East St. Louis. Richard Dyer argues, "[S]tereotypes are widely agreed upon and believed to be right” and are applied to "those whom the rules (of society) are designed to exclude" (Durham and Kellner 353, 355). A tool of hegemony, stereotyping allows dominant groups to "apply their norms to subordinated groups, find the latter wanting, hence inadequate, inferior, sick or grotesque," thus "reinforcing the dominant groups' own sense of the legitimacy of their domination" (Durham and Kellner 356). Racial stereotypes of East St. Louis, reinforced and exaggerated in popular culture, increase the community's economic, social, and racial exclusion, turning it into "a repository for a nonwhite population that is now regarded as expendable" (Kozol 8).

In discussing the stereotyping of places, Josh Sides argues, "We are extraordinarily sensitive to the consequences of stereotyping people, ethnicities, genders, and races, yet we remain insufficiently skeptical about what we imply when we think we are simply referring to a place" (Sides 602). In this essay, we explore the stereotyping of a place, East St. Louis, Illinois, and question how popular culture uses East St. Louis as a metonym for the urban blight, poverty, gang violence, and crime associated with African-American communities. Following a brief discussion of representations of African Americans in popular culture, we provide an overview of East St. Louis, situating it within a framework of both racialized places and popular culture depictions of the urban environment. The heart of the essay is an analysis of specific racialized popular culture depictions of East St. Louis, including the films National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) and Trespass (1992) as well as various television programs. Additionally, we discuss the graphic novel Birth of a Nation (2004), which deliberately uses racialized depictions of East St. Louis to criticize American racism. Finally, the essay concludes by connecting racialized depictions of East St. Louis with conditions present in East St. Louis.


Since its advent, film has been a medium for the "ongoing process of the social construction and representation of race, otherness, and nonwhiteness" (Guerrero 56). Film is simply continuing a long tradition of entertainment and popular culture serving as a means for exploring race in American culture; these explorations often produce negative images of African Americans. In her study of music, dance, blackface minstrelsy, and race, Katrina Dyonne Thompson shows that popular culture, while "offering an avenue of achievement" for African Americans, "also contributed to the persistent degradation of black culture and people through the stereotypes associated with African Americans and entertainment (Thompson 2). Eric Lott, critiquing blackface in early America, argues "what the minstrel show did was capture an antebellum structure of racial feeling…Minstrelsy brought to public form racialized elements of thought and feeling, tone and impulse, residing at the very edge of semantic availability, which Americans only dimly realized they felt, let alone understood" (Lott 8). In modern American popular culture, representations of inner city ghettos serve a similar function. For producers and viewers, they provide shorthand for speaking about race in the United States—for scholars, studying these representations provides a lens to understand current “structures of racial feeling.” Norman Denzin argues, "the contemporary history of race relations in America is, in large part, a history of the representation of violent, youthful minority group members in mainstream Hollywood cinema and in commercial television" (Denzin 2). Often, in Hollywood depictions, these violent minority group members exist within a geographic area, the inner city ghetto, symbolized by places like East St. Louis.  

In its representations in popular culture, East St. Louis becomes a racialized "other," not only a site of violence, but a place whose ills are understood as a function of its blackness, rather than a result of structural inequalities in American society that are simply amplified in East St. Louis. In criticizing popular culture depictions of East St. Louis, we acknowledge that it does suffer from poverty, a high crime rate, and distressed schools – East St. Louis is a troubled community with all of these ills and more. However, these ills are not a function of East St. Louis's blackness, but rather symptoms of complex issues, including economic changes, residential segregation, political corruption, industrial pollution, and corporate power over a local community. In popular culture depictions of East St. Louis, these complex issues are elided and race is the marker used to explain the community and its struggles (Amato and Manuel 217), which was not always the case.

Although troubled throughout its history, it was only after East St. Louis became a majority-black community that observers explained its problems through race. In 1959, when East St. Louis was majority-white, Look magazine and the National Municipal League lauded it as an "All-American" city. Current stories often cite the long-ago Look magazine honor to illustrate the scale of East St. Louis's subsequent decline, ignoring the reason the award was given: it was a "good government" award to honor the city's (unsuccessful) efforts to stamp out the political corruption and vice that had long plagued the community (Moore). Two years after the award, an episode of Leave it to Beaver reinforced the community's undeserved reputation as a model suburb. The program referred to June Cleaver, the idealized feminine symbol of suburban America, as the former "Belle of East St. Louis." Like the fictionalized June Cleaver, the city's postwar idealized reputation was more comforting fable than reality, and the fable of East St. Louis's glorious past endured. What is left is an idealized memory of the city being an "All American" suburb of the 1950s, with current popular culture and news stories tying the community's subsequent decline to its changing demographics from majority white to nearly all black.

East St. Louis

Sitting directly across the Mississippi River from its larger namesake, St. Louis, Missouri, East St. Louis, Illinois, has a population of 26,000 people (98% are African American), with a per capita income of $11,000, and 43% of the population living below the poverty line (U.S. Census). Political scientist Andrew Theising called East St. Louis "one of the most misunderstood cities in America" – noting "too many people have concluded that East St. Louis' problems stem from the fact that it is among the nation's poorest cities, and has a nearly-100% African American population…this perspective is far from accurate" (Theising 2). East St. Louis, which did not become a majority black community until the 1960s, has a long and complicated history as an "industrial suburb." Theising and other scholars have convincingly argued that industrial suburbs like East St. Louis were created because "every major city needs a workbench, a trash heap, a washbasin; some kind of repository for the unattractive yet essential elements of urban life – slaughterhouses, smokestacks, rail yards, and even those who make them work" (Theising 8; Cha-Jua; O'Hara). These industrial suburbs have a local government designed to protect the interests of industries rather than the people of the community and possess few of the social structures found in communities that are more successful. Robust industry and the attendant jobs can camouflage a city's structural shortcomings, but deindustrialization, "a process, a historical transformation that marks not just a quantitative and qualitative change in employment," also magnifies and exacerbates "a fundamental change in the social fabric" (Cowie and Heathcott 6).

Crime, violence, vice, and bigotry have always played a significant role in East St. Louis. Symptoms of the community's foundational problems include the 1885 assassination of the city's first mayor and the 1917 race riot and attempted ethnic cleansing against the growing African-American community (Kozol 22). As early as 1920, urban planners were warning that East St. Louis's economic and governmental corruption would lead to the city's decline (Lumpkins 24, 205-206). With a low corporate tax rate, taverns and vice financed the city's small operations budget and continue to do so to the present day (Theising 8-11). In 1916, saloon licenses accounted for 43 percent of the city's income; by comparison, saloon licenses provided 4.5 percent of the St. Louis, Missouri budget (Barnes 227). Gambling was long prevalent in East St. Louis, attracting not only community residents, but also Missourians who traveled across the river to the "East Side" for entertainment. Meanwhile, so many taverns were open in East St. Louis during the first half of the twentieth century that one neighborhood wore the name "Whiskey Chute." Accompanying the gambling and liquor was a thriving prostitution industry, and various criminal organizations both collaborated with and competed against business and political leaders for influence (Theising 141-144). Corruption and vice were part of East St. Louis's DNA from the community's earliest days, and predate both its population decline and population shift from majority white to majority black. Continuing to be an integral part of East St. Louis, vice contributes to the duality East St. Louis shares with other African American communities – East St. Louis, coded as a place too dangerous for white people, nightly draws white customers to its casino, bars, and strip clubs.

"Black Places, Black Problems"

Although East St. Louis is a rather small community, popular culture portrays it as the inner city because it does not fit within the binary, Manichean formulation of black inner city ghetto and white suburb. As Arnold Hirsch, Thomas Sugrue, Colin Gordon, and others have shown in their work on ghetto formation in various cities (including St. Louis), as African Americans migrated to cities in the twentieth century, business interests, local and national government, and white residents used many means to create and enforce residential segregation. Although not an exhaustive list, these means included the following tactics: racial violence, restrictive covenants, redlining, steering of buyers, and selective zoning (Hirsch; Sugrue; Gordon). Suburbanization, in particular, proved important to maintaining residential segregation. Disinvestment from the city occurred concurrently with "white flight" investment in racially exclusive, white suburbs, and "the desertion of the city by middle-and upper-class whites had serious residential effects on those left behind" (Hirsch 28). Political scientist Clarissa Rile Hayward challenges assumptions of how space is racialized by investigating how "racial identity and difference were, quite literally, objectified in the physical spaces of the American metropolis." Using Columbus, Ohio, as an example, Hayward argues that concentrating poverty, housing problems, and joblessness in "black places" transforms in popular consciousness these collective ills into "black problems," layering "material inequalities atop identitarian distinctions" (Hayward, "Black Places").

These identitarian distinctions become apparent in Josh Sides's analysis of Compton, California, which is, like East St. Louis, a formerly majority white suburb now understood as a black place. Sides notes, "the [negative] perception of Compton [accelerated through rap music] arguably became more influential to the city's destiny than its own real history" as a Los Angeles suburb (Sides 583-584). After studying Compton, Sides determined, "[P]lace names are rarely just that; in most cases we use them to refer to or imply a larger set of events, ideas, and developments in our personal and collective memories" (Sides 602). There are dire consequences for misusing metonymy, "when a place name is employed as a condensed representation of a host of urban ills of which it is but a small part" (Sides 602).

For the Saturday Night Live skit, and other popular culture examples discussed later in this essay, "East St. Louis" is a metonym, carrying with it a set of assumptions and judgments, the community representing a host of issues existing far beyond the actual boundaries of East St. Louis. During the skit, the audience's laughter begins when the narrator mentions the name "East St. Louis," beginning even before the actors on stage speak. This reaction to the name implies that the audience already has stereotypes of the city in mind – the skit is reinforcing these existing stereotypes, not simply creating them. The Saturday Night Live audience's reaction to the skit demonstrates the power of East St. Louis as an idea – their laughter at the phrase "East St. Louis Chamber of Commerce," reveals their belief in the absurdity of this seeming juxtaposition that poor, black East St. Louis would have a Chamber of Commerce like nearly every other American community.

As Sides notes, Compton has also become a metonym for similar issues, and the community of Compton battles similar perceptions. However, one key difference between the two communities is in the access to production – Compton's national reputation was created by rap music produced by Compton-based groups, and the Academy Award-nominated film Boyz n the Hood (1991), written and directed by John Singleton, a native of the area. In contrast, few East St. Louisans are producing the popular culture depictions of their community. Instead, films and television shows, the popular culture depictions most influencing national perceptions of East St. Louis, are almost wholly the products of outside perspectives. (One of the few exceptions, the comic novel The Birth of a Nation, is discussed later in this essay). These outsiders, in their depictions of East St. Louis, turn East St. Louis from a small, troubled community into an inner city ghetto.



East St. Louis as the Inner City

Carlo Rotella notes that during the urban crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s, “criminal violence – especially in the form of the riot, the mugging, and police brutality – became institutionalized as the text in which pertinent urban contents might be read (or buried). Most often, those contents included the situation of American racial order, the evacuation of opportunity from inner cities in a suburbanizing age" (Rotella 120). The neighborhoods left behind by this transformation "inspired a thorough revision of imaginative geography, giving rise to a generic inner city in which the meanings of these changes could be staged and parsed (Rotella 120). By the 1980s, although in reality East St. Louis was a suburb with a precipitously declining population, in popular culture it joined large inner cities as representations of urban decline, violence, and racial strife. Dramas and action films like Death Wish (1974), The Warriors (1979), Fort Apache the Bronx (1981), and Escape From New York (1981) spoke to the dangers inherent in the inner city, and even comedies like The Out of Towners (1970) utilized the juxtaposition of white suburbanites being out of place in the dangerous, dark inner city.

Within this formulation, East St. Louis, understood as an “inner city without an outer city,” took its place alongside much larger places. (Kozol, 20) Popular culture continued with and added to this understanding of East St. Louis, cementing East St. Louis’s reputation in the American imagination. Iconography is an important method of stereotyping in film, and films use the iconography of the inner city ghetto – abandoned buildings, concrete and asphalt with little or no green space, and graffiti, to reinforce the idea of East St. Louis as an inner city ghetto. (Durham and Kellner, 357; Massood, 1-2) By the early 1980s, one film even played for laughs America’s fears of the black inner city by featuring East St. Louis.  



"The Griswold Syndrome"

The film National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) illustrates East St. Louis's position as metonymy for the racialized inner city and overtly sets it in opposition to white, middle-class suburbia. Grossing over $61 million in the American box office and becoming a cable television mainstay, the popular comedy brought to millions of people negative stereotypes of East St. Louis. Directed by Harold Ramis, a Chicago, Illinois, native and alumni of Washington University in St. Louis, Vacation follows the Griswold family on a drive from their home in the Chicago suburbs to a southern California amusement park, Walley World. In their wood-paneled station wagon, Clark (Chevy Chase) and Ellen Griswold (Beverly D'Angelo) and their two children, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron), are representative of the typical American family. During their journey, Clark becomes increasingly obsessed with reaching their destination, and the family faces numerous, ultimately harmless, obstacles in their quest to get to Walley World. Stereotypes abound in the film, as the audience meets a car salesperson and auto mechanics who takes advantage of Clark; socially awkward, possibly incestuous cousins in rural Kansas; and a blonde model who tries to seduce Clark. However, one of the few times when the film's tone changes, and the Griswolds appear in danger, is when the family gets lost in East St. Louis.
Interestingly enough, the scene of the Griswolds getting lost in East St. Louis starts with a geographic mistake. On a bright, sunny day, the Griswolds drive west on the interstate from Illinois using the Poplar Street Bridge to cross the Mississippi River, the border between Missouri and Illinois. A caption on the screen announces that they are entering St. Louis, Missouri. After Clark holds forth about the Gateway Arch, his daughter asks him what river they are crossing. At this point, the film's racial coding of East St. Louis begins. In answering his daughter, Clark breaks into singing "Deep River," the African-American spiritual made famous by Paul Robeson in Show Boat. When the Griswolds cross the river into Missouri and take the wrong exit, they get lost and end up in St. Louis However, in the original film, an intercut reveals an interstate sign that reads "East St. Louis," which signifies to the audience that they are now in East St. Louis, Illinois, not St. Louis, Missouri (Hamilton).

When the Griswolds exit the interstate, the scene abruptly changes. The bright sunny day has turned to a dark night, the music becomes the blues, there are sirens in the background, and the extras on the sidewalk are all African American. Ellen tells her husband, "We have no business being in a place like this. It is so dangerous." Clark responds, "Well, think of it this way, honey. This is a part of America we never get to see." Ellen replies, "That's good!" After Clark says that seeing the "plight" will "make us appreciate what we have," a gunshot rings out, which prompts Clark to order his family to "roll 'em up!" creating a barrier between the suburban family and the violence of East St. Louis. When Clark stops and asks a pimp for directions, the pimp replies, "F--- your momma!" Reinforcing the fact that they do not belong, Clark then tells a man carrying a basketball, "We're from out of town." The man replies, "No shit." He then not only charges Clark five dollars for directions, he keeps the change from a ten, does not provide the directions, and stalls Clark while other men steal the Griswold's hubcaps and spray paint "Honky Lips" on their car. The filmmakers pack this sequence with black, inner city stereotypes: pimps, prostitutes, thieves, basketball, barbeque ribs, and racial animus.  

In a later cut of the film, editing fixed the geographic mistake by removing the East St. Louis sign, but most viewers still attribute the scene to East St. Louis. Twenty-one years after the film's release, Harold Ramis, in an interview with a St. Louis newspaper, apologized for the scene. He said, "Nine out of ten people project their own image of East St. Louis onto the screen. When I was in college, we used to go there to listen to music. It was an edgy thing to do. I apologize for the whole scene. I wouldn't think of doing a thing like that now. It was supposed to be about prejudice when, in fact, it was prejudiced" ("The Man Behind").

The scene so took hold in the public imagination that a newspaper story published over twenty years after the film's release used the term "The Griswold Syndrome" to explain an Illinois highway detour designed to keep people away from East St. Louis. To divert westbound drivers to a southbound state highway, the Illinois Department of Transportation created a route that forced drivers to cross the Mississippi River twice (into St. Louis, Missouri, and back into Illinois) rather than drive through East St. Louis. The over-the-Mississippi-River detour added approximately ten minutes (in light traffic) to the commute when routing drivers through East St. Louis would have added less than three minutes and possibly brought customers to struggling businesses. Instead, the chosen detour became a microcosm of the cyclical nature of East St. Louis's struggles, leading to economic consequences, more poverty, and worsening perceptions. When told of the temporary detour, Ron Malloy, owner of a restaurant in downtown East St. Louis, spoke of the effects of the syndrome, "The Department of Transportation has routed the traffic around East St. Louis for years. Retail has felt the impact" (Seely, "A River"). Newspaper reporter Mike Seely noted, "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 told of the detour, the president of the Greater East St. Louis Chamber of Commerce responded, "I don't know why they would do that, other than to keep [drivers] from going through East St. Louis. This happens all the time. You used to get Illinois tourist maps, and East St. Louis would not be on the map" (Seely, "A River"). Jonathan Kozol, in his book Savage Inequalities, reports that as late as 1991 the regional telephone directory omitted East St. Louis numbers, despite East St. Louis being in the center of the telephone service area (Kozol 18). These and numerous other incidents indicate East St. Louis represents a part of America many Americans would rather not consider. Unless it is in a very circumscribed role as a joke or a controlled juxtaposition with suburban America, the preference is to keep East St. Louis isolated, and not acknowledge the societal failures represented by it. Safir Ahmed, a local newspaper reporter states, "The ultimate terror for white people is to leave the highway by mistake and find themselves in East St. Louis. People speak of getting lost in East St. Louis as a nightmare. The nightmare to me is that they never leave that highway, so they see what life is like for all the children here. They ought to get off that highway. The nightmare isn't in their heads. It's a real place" (qtd. in Kozol 14).

Those who do "get off that highway," typically do so by accident or in search of casinos and strip clubs. As Jennifer Hamer studied East St. Louis, she interviewed people living there and found "The Griswold Syndrome" to be manifesting itself in East St. Louis in other ways than just detours keeping visitors out. Hamer notes that traffic is designed to accommodate the Casino Queen's white visitors who "fear that driving and hesitating anywhere in East St. Louis will invite a carjacking, rape, or murder" (Hamer 177). Not only does the traffic flow function to get whites in and out of the edges of East St. Louis as quickly as possible, those who find themselves deeper in the community create dangers for the local residents. Hamer addresses these dangers: "Residents say even white drivers who work in the city barely obey traffic signals. They run stop signs, they run lights, they speed through here, all because they fear victimization by marauding black criminal men looking for easy money – too lazy to work for wages" (Hamer 177). Combining this element with the defective traffic lights and infrastructure, many in East St. Louis feel in danger simply walking down the street with the risk of being hit by a car, which is not an irrational fear. As Hamer points out, in 2006 the motor-vehicle fatalities in East St. Louis were twice that of the state of Illinois as a whole (Hamer 177-178). With risks such as these and others, many parents have to worry about their children enjoying simple childhood joys such as playing outside, which makes life in East St. Louis even further from the ideal suburban life.



Nine years after the Griswolds got lost in East St. Louis, two white suburban firefighters from Arkansas, Don (William Sadler) and Vince (Bill Paxton), made their way to the city in the film Trespass (1992). Director Walter Hill, whose film The Warriors featured gang warfare taking over the streets of New York City, mines similar territory in Trespass in which he creates an unforgiving urban environment where survival is difficult and violence is endemic. Drawn by rumors of a buried treasure in an abandoned East St. Louis factory, Don and Vince draw the attention of a black gang led by King James (Ice T) and Savon (Ice Cube). After Vince sees the gang commit murder and is spotted as a witness, the gang attempts to capture and murder Vince and Don. During the chase, the gang becomes gripped with curiosity over what two white men are doing in East St. Louis. Trespass mostly takes place in the abandoned factory as the two firefighters struggle to survive against the gang.

Originally titled Looters, Trespass underwent a title change as Universal Studios delayed its release following the April 1992 Los Angeles riots. Upon its release, Variety called the film a combination of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Rio Bravo, injected with "a noxious dose of racial hatred," and the Washington Post stated it was "mindlessly violent, profane and insultingly racist" ("Review: Trespass"; Hinson) Trespass constructs East St. Louis as a black place with black problems, highlighting the differences between the white characters and black characters, and making racial conflict a central theme of the film. Although filmed in Atlanta and Memphis and set in a generic factory, the film emphasizes its East St. Louis location, one that a reviewer referred to as a "war zone" (Gleiberman). The mise-en-scene shows the effects of deindustrialization in East St. Louis: the buildings are abandoned, the streets filled with junk, the colors washed out, and a pall of industrial smoke hangs over the town.

By the time of Trespass's release, the symbolism of such effects was familiar to viewers – films of the previous two decades (including ones directed by Hill) had used them to signify urban decline and the inner city ghetto. In his analysis of the film The French Connection (1971), in many ways the first of these urban decay films, Carlo Rotella notes, "postindustrial ghettos" were "marked with scars of urban renewal and across-the-board disinvestment that happened in the 1950s and 1960s. The flow of capital out of these neighborhoods produced vacant lots and urban ruins – signs of deeper, harder-to-identify social trauma on a grand scale – as well as rises in the violent, face-to-face street criminality that was easier to conceive of and identify as a social problem" (Rotella 119). All too often, the faces representing this criminality were black. To reinforce the criminality inherent in black places like East St. Louis, in addition to the signs of deindustrialization, the beginning of Trespass shows viewers the words "East St. Louis," immediately followed by a home video showing a black male shooting another black male in the head in front of a backdrop of an abandoned factory.

In the film, the white characters echo the fears of The Griswold Syndrome – the fear that outsiders in East St. Louis (especially white outsiders) risk losing their lives and their property. Upon arrival in East St. Louis, Don hides his car to keep it away from "the vandals." He then pulls out a handgun, causing Vince to ask, "Do you always drive around packing?" Don replies, "Like the man says don't leave home without it, especially when you go to East St. Louis" (Trespass). After arriving in the run-down city, Don and Vince are the only white characters for the remainder of the film. Not only are they the only white characters shown in East St. Louis, the film makes it clear that the two are extremely out of place. Throughout the storyline, black characters make comments reinforcing the idea that white people do not belong in East St. Louis. Upon meeting, Savon refers to Vince as “White Boy,” and repeatedly asks him what he is doing in East St. Louis. To the black characters, the only feasible reasons that white people have for going to East St. Louis is because they are police officers or soliciting drugs, and neither one seems to be the case with Vince and Don. This revelation leaves the gang perplexed, in particularly King James who expresses his concern: "White guys don't come up here unless they cops and you ain't cops, so what the f----- going on?" Numerous times in the film, black characters say that white people do not belong in East St. Louis. The music video for the film featuring Ice Cube and Ice T, also titled "Trespass," expresses similar sentiment as the film. To start the video, as a group of white males enter the abandoned factory Trespass is set in, Ice T states, "Damn right they ain't from around here." Ice Cube's verse in the song makes specific comments reinforcing white people not belonging with the following:

Take a good look at my motherf------ jacker
About to feel the wrath, of a greedy ass cracker
Pale as snow, so you know the ho stand out
Comin' in my hood with his hand out
Tryin' to get over on the black but the motherf------ mack
Will put a f------ slug in his back
And with the boom ping ping, it ain't no thing to blast
On greedy motherf------ that trespass (Ice T, Ice Cube)

With the lines "greedy ass cracker" and "pale as snow," the song directly conveys to the consumers that white people have no reason to visit places coded as black places unless if they are ripping off the people who live there. Scenes and comments such as these examples directly tell the audience of the dangers white people face when going to East St. Louis. 



East St. Louis as Punchline

By the 1990s, there was such a common understanding of negative perceptions of East St. Louis that television programs were using the name of the community as throwaway punchlines. On "They Saved Lisa's Brain," a 1999 episode of the popular television cartoon series The Simpsons, MENSA asks Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) to join the local chapter after she writes a letter to the paper addressing all the problems she sees in Springfield, the fictional setting for the series. After receiving Lisa's letter, MENSA takes over Springfield and improves the community. During an overview of the changes they have made, the character known as Comic Book Guy (Hank Azaria) states, "The world has already taken note of our accomplishments. Springfield has moved up to number 299 on the list of America's 300 most livable cities. Take that East St. Louis!" On the computer screen behind Comic Book Guy, viewers can see numbers 296-300 on this list, showing Flint, Michigan, the fictional town of Ebola, Rhode Island, and fictional Dawson's Creek, North Carolina all above East St. Louis, Illinois.

In an interview, the episode writer Matt Selman told a reporter he references East St. Louis "because it's a crack-ridden slum" (qtd. in Evans). Looking back at his statement on East St. Louis, Selman explained, "The people of East St. Louis were offended that I referred to it as 'a crack-ridden slum,' which it may or may not be. I haven't checked recently, or ever. I guess that was one of the problems: I had never been there. When I said it was 'a crack-ridden slum,' it was based purely on hearsay and conjecture" (qtd. in Evans). Selman's statement is revealing for many reasons. His representation of East St. Louis as a "crack-ridden slum" was informed not by personal experience, or by research, but rather from the community's reputation, much of which has come from other popular culture.

The television program That 70s Show also used East St. Louis as a metonym for crime and drug use. The program, set in a fictional Wisconsin suburb in the 1970s, featured a middle-class, middle-aged couple, Red (Kurtwood Smith) and Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp), their son, and their son's friends. In a 2006 episode, Red and Kitty confront their son's friend Steven Hyde (Danny Masterson), who is living with them and dealing drugs from their home. Kitty tells him, "You're turning my living room into East St. Louis" (Who Needs You). Although the line is simply a throwaway and not central to the plot of the episode, it is still revealing. Since the program is set in the 1970s, before East St. Louis had a national reputation as an inner city ghetto, the line is an anachronism. It is unlikely that a 1970s Wisconsin homemaker would know about East St. Louis or its reputation, but by 2006, when the episode was written and produced, it was a given that East St. Louis meant drugs and crime. Movies like National Lampoon's Vacation and Trespass, and popular TV shows like The Simpsons had embedded and reinforced the notion of East St. Louis as a "crack-ridden slum" in the American imagination.

East St. Louis as a symbol for vice, social ills, and violence continued into the present decade with popular TV shows such as Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report continuing to make jokes about the community. The same month the Romney episode of Saturday Night Live, The Colbert Report mentioned the city. When joking about the National Rifle Association, Colbert started the segment by stating, "Folks, nation, I hope you had a great weekend. Mine was a blast, in that I spent it with people who love to blast things. I was down at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in St. Louis, not to be confused with the decades long gun show in East St. Louis" As the screen behind Colbert switched from the NRA logo to a picture of a deserted inner city street, the presumably liberal audience laughed at the joke.



Birth of a Nation

When people with an inside knowledge of life in East St. Louis have the opportunity to control popular culture depictions of the city, the effects are quite different. In 2004, Aaron McGruder, creator of the politically provocative comic strip The Boondocks, joined Reginald Hudlin, a film director and producer who grew up in East St. Louis, and illustrator Kyle Baker to produce Birth of a Nation, a comic novel set in contemporary East St. Louis. In the introduction to the novel, after discussing some of the problems in the city, Reginald Hudlin writes, "The positive side of growing up there was that I saw black people in positions of power managing their own city. I lived next door to the chief of the fire department. I went to the same school as the son of the mayor of East St. Louis…sure it was a private school three towns over because the local schools were a mess, but hey, he was a black man in charge!" (McGruder, Hudlin, and Baker).

The premise of the novel is rather simple, but eloquently speaks to the marginality of East St. Louis within American society. During a presidential election, a private corporation contracted to run voting in the state of Illinois unjustly labels the majority of East St. Louis residents as "felons" and removes them from the voting rolls. This act gives, by a margin of 300 votes, the state's electoral votes and the national election to Governor Caldwell of Texas, a character who bears a striking resemblance to President George W. Bush. When the case goes to the Supreme Court, the court rules that the election illegally disenfranchised the citizens of East St. Louis, but the court also denies a re-vote and decides the election in favor of Caldwell. After Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders abandon East St. Louis protests, Mayor Fredericks of East St. Louis and others from the community decide to secede from the United States and form The Republic of Blackland.

As its name implies, the community becomes representative of not only East St. Louis, but other African Americans, as well. In forming this new nation, Mayor Fredericks articulates the duality of the African-American experience, arguing that the residents of East St. Louis are upholding American ideals, creating a new nation "as the forefathers of this country did when their freedom was threatened. And history will say Americans never forgot the true meaning of liberty" (McGruder, Hudlin, and Baker 34). Despite this identification as Americans, the marginalization of Blackland, like the actual East St. Louis, is pronounced. In arguing for an invasion by the National Guard, the vice president asks, "What happens when Kansas City decides it wants to be part of Canada?" In response, the Secretary of State says, "This isn't Kansas City. It isn't even St. Louis…it's East St. Louis." After his National Security Advisor informs President Caldwell of the community's infant mortality, homicide rates, and environmental problems, the president exclaims, "Jesus, what a shithole!" The National Security Advisor responds, "it's a little slice of the third world right here at home. Unlivable by American standards" (McGruder, Hudlin, and Baker 39).     

Setting up a bank that launders money for foreign governments and working with OPEC to threaten the United States with an oil embargo, Blackland effectively uses its economic and social isolation from the rest of the country to ensure its independence. These financial dealings to put them on track to become "the richest nation in the world, per capita, in approximately nine months" draws so many immigrants that they have to close the borders. This activity also prompts the signing of the United States-Blackland treaty, which ensures Blackland's independence (McGruder, Hudlin, and Baker 61-62, 136-137).  Unlike other popular culture, the satirical novel contextualizes problems in East St. Louis within a larger American discussion of race, economic class, and political power, placing East St. Louis in the center of American identity. Perhaps most importantly, the novel reclaims East St. Louis as a small community, not the inner city portrayed in other depictions.




Hamer rightly argues that understanding this community requires people to "make that leap in understanding that East St. Louis is actually a suburb, not an inner city." This leap in understanding, when applied to East St. Louis and similar places, challenges broadly-held assumptions about suburbia, poverty, crime, and race in the United States (Hamer 2). In Abandoned in the Heartland, her study of East St. Louis, she argues, "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." East St. Louis, in Hamer's thesis, is representative of many other suburbs that are "not white, upwardly mobile, or middle-class" (Hamer 1-3). The seeming contradictions contained in East St. Louis and similar communities (African American, poor, suburban) appear counterintuitive because, as she argues, suburbia represents "a lifestyle with a distinct cultural meaning" (Hamer 13).

As Kenneth T. Jackson explains in his classic study, Crabgrass Frontier, scholars have rejected the stereotype of the typical suburb, but have not reached a consensus on a definition to replace the stereotype. Although scholars have rejected the stereotype, for the public, it has endured. For those on the right, mythical suburbs fulfill the need for an "American way of life," and for those on the left they serve as a symbol of conformity and ecological destruction (Jackson 4). Suburbia, in the American imagination, represents a place of escape from the inner city's "dangerous streets and criminal kind, its loud noises and dense populations, its unpredictability, lack of personal space, pollution, and yes, its dark racial element" (Hamer 47.) Meanwhile, African Americans in the inner city "became the face of America's poverty, effectively racializing, in the public mind, the notion of poverty" (Hamer 8).

As the public mind creates these images of East St. Louis portrayed in popular culture, those living within the community are all too aware of how the outside world misconceives the place they call home. In a report on graffiti, local news network KMOV quoted a local who stated, "They actually already have us pegged when they come into our city, you know what I'm saying, having people scared of us." The popular culture references discussed in this article also cause outsiders to "peg" the city based solely on "hearsay and conjecture," which racializes the daily struggles they face.

Commensurate with this understanding of the inner city, black people are not only the face of poverty, they are causes of it. Rather than examining structural causes of poverty, poor black people's "cultural deficiencies" carry the blame "for the group's inability to move beyond their own failures" (Hamer 8)" A poor, black, industrial suburb, East St. Louis does not fit within the binary formulation of white suburbia and black inner city. But in popular culture and the American imagination, the community became not only associated with the inner city, but also representative of it. Similarly, popular culture portrays East St. Louis residents as the cause of the problems in East St. Louis, rather than the heirs of an untenable situation and community structure.  



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