Can This Inside Look at America’s Most Dangerous City Shock Us Into Action?
We see the headlines about the rampant violence in Chicago and the catastrophic bankruptcy of Detroit. Yet most people living outside these areas have no clue how bad the extreme poverty, alarming violence, and egregious environmental conditions are for residents of many American cities. If we do know, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to the problems. With her feature-length documentary The Other Side of Grace, veteran journalist Goldie Taylor hopes to shine a spotlight on America’s forgotten communities and shock us into action.
In the film, Taylor shares the story of her hometown, East St. Louis, Ill. The FBI has dubbed it “the nation’s most dangerous city”; the homicide rate is an alarming 17 times the national average. Taylor calls her birthplace a “war zone.”
“All the things we would consider wrong about America—gun violence, poverty, lack of access to meaningful health care, environmental justice—all of them are wrong in East St. Louis,” she says.
Fourteen square miles and home to nearly 27,000 residents, East St. Louis was once a boomtown. In 1950, 82,000 people called it home. But between outsourcing of solidly middle-class jobs, the decline in manufacturing, policies that encouraged segregation, and the availability of cheap guns, the city is now one of America’s dirty little secrets.
Politicians, pundits, and intellectuals blame the problems facing places like East St. Louis on the “culture of poverty” of urban communities. Taylor disagrees: “You can’t trap people and then blame them for being trapped,” she says.
“Going back home was tough for a number of reasons,” says Taylor, who’s attempting to raise $55,000 on Kickstarter to finish the film. “Seeing my old block and just how broken down it has become. Passing by schools that have been abandoned for 10 or 15 years and no one has the money or the resources to scrape them away.
“That’s got to concern us as a nation. We’ve got a city fighting to survive, cope, and make it every day, and no one hears their cries. No one hears their call for help. You have to start to ask yourself, Why isn’t this a story that gets told? Why isn’t anybody listening?”
One of the biggest reasons most Americans, including the media, ignore the ills of towns like East St. Louis is that they believe the crime, hopelessness, and despair of such places doesn’t affect them. But as Taylor points out, this couldn’t be further from the truth. “Poverty does not stay contained. Those kinds of pathologies—gun violence, illicit drug use—they move to the suburbs. It affects everybody’s quality of life,” she says.
Another, more nefarious reason that stories of such communities rarely make it to the evening news is the issue of race.
“I call it ‘American apartheid,’ ” Taylor says. According to U.S. Census data, East St. Louis is 98 percent black. Only 8.9 percent of residents have a college degree, and 43.5 percent live under the poverty line. “We invest ourselves in full-on segregation, locking people into communities, stripping away jobs, letting the tax base fall away, and creating generational poverty,” she says, explaining the factors that led to East St. Louis’ downfall.
Many people, such as U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, insist on blaming poor people for living in such dire situations. Yet, Taylor points out, “government policies have cut off the bridge in and out of East St. Louis. Whatever economic bridge to whatever version of the American dream that could have been had was bombed.”
We’ve also conditioned ourselves, Taylor says, to believe that “black men will kill each other, and we’ve perpetuated that myth over and over again until most of us have become immune to when another black man dies.” As a result, we’re more likely to hear of a mall shooting in a small town than of a murder in East St. Louis.
While some may wonder what a documentary like The Other Side of Grace can do to help impoverished communities, Taylor’s goal is to give the city’s residents a voice and inspire the rest of us to action.
“On one hand, I want people to be absolutely selfish about this and say, ‘It does impact me.’ And on the other, I want them to be absolutely altruistic and say, ‘These people don’t deserve to live like this.’ ”
As for long-term fixes for America’s troubled communities, Taylor advocates a holistic approach that includes self-determination by those affected coupled with targeted government policies on health care, education, and jobs.
“We can’t wait until we have clear equanimity in the justice system, until we have equal public education,” she says. “We can’t wait until we have the necessary reforms in health care. Our work has already started. We still have to put one foot in front of the other and navigate this road.
“Is there some greater calling upon us to rebuild our communities? Yes,” she says. “Is the responsibility ours and ours alone? Hell no.”