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We're standing almost beneath the Gateway Arch. Can you spot East St. Louis?

Don't be surprised if you can't. The city's downtown is a long way from the St. Louis riverfront... physically and metaphorically. Only the 13 story Spivey Building is clearly visible from the Missouri side (look just to the right of the Casino Queen's white, yellow and red sign.) Most St. Louis residents and visitors see it either from here, or zipping past it at 70 miles per hour on the way to the Illinois suburbs -- in other words, not at all. It's not just a literal statement.

Few cities in America have suffered like East St. Louis has over the last several decades. The city's race riots of 1917, sparked by white fear of blacks migrating into the city from the south and widespread racial prejudice on both sides, are legendary. The city was long cheated out of tax revenue by massive factories that incorporated themselves as separate towns. White flight and job loss devastated the town from the 1950s onward. From a peak population of 90,000 in 1960 the city has dwindled to 36,000 today.

But the numbers tell only part of the story. Far more telling are the sights of the city's streets themselves.

One color dominates in East St. Louis: green.

The city has acquired a notion of ultimate danger, a reputation the supreme king of Places You Shouldn't Go. And while violent crime remains a common problem, the surprising fact is... most of the city is empty.

So many lots have been vacated, so much land stands empty where once there were homes or factories, so many abandoned houses are being overtaken by trees and weeds, that the city in many places appears not so much an urban landscape as some ancient Aztec ruin, lost in a jungle. In many places, you're unlikely to even see anybody on the streets.

This landscape is the result of white flight, of disinvestment, of a loss of tax base, of a city for years could barely afford even the most basic of services, of a people struggling to get by. I can't claim to tell or know the whole story; my purpose is to document what survives today.

More telling still are the stories I hear from site visitors, people who grew up in East St. Louis in the 1950s and 1960s. They speak of an active town, a great place to live, comfortable and friendly -- a world apart from what remains today.

Beyond the supposedly dread streets of East St. Louis itself lies a surreal world of small towns and heavy industry, randomly mixed with marshes, fields and forests on the Mississippi bottom lands. Prosperity and decay crop up unpredictably. Rail lines and switching yards are everywhere, as the railroads prepare to cross the Mississippi River. These towns offer an entire world of exploration beyond the bounds of East St. Louis.

I must thank Keith Belk for his gracious and invaluable assistance in creating the original version of this tour. In 2001 he took me on my first tour of the entire inner Metro East area, not only getting me past the voodoo taboo against venturing into East St. Louis, but also gave me my first introduction to places like Granite City, Sauget, and Brooklyn.

Since then, I've ventured across the river many times, on my own and with friends. Nobody's ever bothered me; I've never had any trouble while driving around. While East St. Louis does have real and serious problems, some of the perceptions don't match the reality.

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