CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - In 1990, when a small group of faculty members and students from the University of Illinois arrived in East St. Louis, Ill., bearing ideas for revitalizing decaying, semi-abandoned neighborhoods, residents were understandably skeptical.
Now, some of those same residents who initially were wary of the "do-gooders" have handed the U. of I.'s East St. Louis Action Research Project a fairly glowing report card. The program evaluation was prepared by community residents, with assistance from St. Louis University professor Stephen P. Wernet, and presented during a panel discussion at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's annual Community Outreach Partnerships Centers Conference in East St. Louis in September. The conference was co-hosted by the U. of I.'s College of Fine and Applied Arts, which received a HUD grant in 1995 to support collaborative efforts by architecture, landscape architecture and urban and regional planning faculty members and students, and East St. Louis residents.
Kenneth Reardon, a U. of I. professor of urban and regional planning and chair of ESLARP's executive committee, said the residents' work on the report demonstrated just how committed the community had become to the project's participatory research approach. "This the first panel of low-income people of color who have prepared an academic paper evaluating the effectiveness of a community outreach partnership center from a grass-roots perspective," he said.
And, according to the report, the effort to draw neighborhood residents into the planning, labor and research process early on is the prime reason the U. of I. project has succeeded where other outside interventions have failed. Residents documented an "underlying theme of caution or wariness toward outside groups who come into East St. Louis," noting such caution was "grounded in a perpetual scenario or cycle of outsiders' entry, study, promise, and failure to fulfill the promise." When promises aren't kept and anticipated resources don't materialize, "citizens become disenchanted, frustrated and eventually angry." Furthermore, they stated, "This apparent lack of caring for the community by an outside agency is intertwined with a sense of institutional racism and paternalism."
By all accounts, "It appears that with ESLARP this cycle has been surmounted," the residents reported. They added that upon entering the community, U. of I. staff members exhibited attitudes and behavior that communicated a willingness to listen, and "treated people as adults who can think."
To date, that sense of mutual respect and caring has set the stage for a number of concrete results, including home repair and renovation projects, playground construction, a farmer's market and sponsorship of home-ownership seminars. The project also has led to the establishment of a neighborhood technical assistance center and, most recently, a comprehensive, five-year plan to build $30 million in housing; create zoning plans; and stimulate employment opportunities and commercial development in conjunction with the construction of a light-rail station.