Answer Man: What's the 'real story' about the Signal Hill gates?

News-DemocratJune 8, 2013 

For almost 23 years I have lived along Concord Avenue below Signal Hill, which ends at Illinois 157. Why is that gate at the end of Concord locked for six months of the year? Back in the early '90s while I was TDY in the Air Force, "60 Minutes" repeated its segment on Belleville police targeting blacks for traffic stops. When I said that I lived right up the street from the gate, several pilots suggested I might not want to mention that I was from Belleville because of the city's negative racial image. So what is the real story about that gate? It certainly makes it inconvenient if I want to use 157 to go to the Shrine, etc. -- D.M. King, of Belleville

Had you moved in just a few years before, you might have been willing to give up a little convenience for perhaps a sense of greater security.

At least, that's the trade a majority of your neighbors eventually chose, resulting in not one but two gates that block access to the area from 157 for eight months of the year.

It was the fall of 1985, and Signal Hill was a neighborhood on edge after a series of vicious crimes within a month's time.

On Oct. 18, a 68-year-old woman had a wedding ring ripped from her finger and her home ransacked. On Oct. 28, three men invaded another Signal Hill home, scuffled with the residents and fired four shots as they fled.

On Nov. 15, a woman was raped as her husband lay bound on the floor of their home along North 88th St. And, on Nov. 18, a 78-year-old Belleville man was robbed and left in a ditch as he was waiting for a tow truck in the area. All of the attackers were black.

"We're scared all the time," said one mother who began keeping a gun handy after two nearby houses were burglarized. "My kids are petrified. The 6-year-old won't come in the house until we do first and look under her bed."

At the time, some speculated that the crimes were being committed by gangs from the East St. Louis-Centreville-Alorton area, perhaps as part of some gang initiation rite. Residents began organizing watch groups, which led to the formation of the Signal Hill Neighborhood Association.

As it turned out, the crime spree was masterminded by one man: Floyd Robinson, of East St. Louis, who finally was arrested and charged in January 1986. After two escapes from custody -- once for nine months -- Robinson pleaded guilty and was sentenced April 28, 1987, to 35 years in prison.

But weeks before Robinson was nabbed, residents began discussing ways they could make the beautiful and usually tranquil area safer. One frequently mentioned possibility was hiring off-duty sheriff's deputies to patrol the area. The other: erecting gates to block access from 157, which residents said would reduce traffic, speeding, litter and crime.

In July 1986, nearly 450 area residents voted in an unofficial referendum on placing gates. The result: 323 in favor and 120 opposed -- a 73 percent approval rating.

But simply coming up with the idea and installing the gates were two entirely different matters. Opponents threatened court action for a variety of reasons, including convenience, access to emergency vehicles -- and discrimination.

"I believe the issue is racial," one resident said at the time. "Once you put gates up in an area where you have haves and have-nots, it's like waving a red flag in front of a bull."

Opponents finally acquiesced. After a three-year battle, the Signal Hill Neighborhood Association paid $6,000 for the steel gates at Kingston/Concord Drive at 157 and Bluff Drive at 157. On Aug. 14, 1989, the Kingston gates were padlocked for the first time.

As in the referendum, most continued to support the gates despite the inconvenience. Emergency vehicles were given keys to the locks. The gates are maintained by Centreville Township.

The last major criticism seemed to arise shortly after the "60 Minutes" segment on Jan. 10, 1993, you referred to. The Rev. John Curry, of the Belleville Bible Way Church, decried the gates as "a symbol of racial hatred" and called for a public meeting to discuss their removal.

The protest was short-lived. Two weeks later, Johnny Scott, head of the East St. Louis NAACP, said he was "double adamant" that the gates were not a symbol of racism, but merely deterred crime and reduced traffic.

"If I could put up gates in my neighborhood, I would," he told the News-Democrat.

A few months later, after Rodger Cook became Belleville mayor and Police Chief Robert Hurst resigned, Curry said he would no longer actively oppose the gates. So, for the past 20 years, they have been quietly closed March 15 and opened Nov. 16 to allow easier access during winter weather.

"The people who live here notice a real reduction in traffic when we close those, and they're thrilled," Barb Ducey, longtime neighborhood association president, told me recently. "It makes it much safer for people who walk and bike. It really does lend itself to a family community. They're wonderful. Wouldn't have it any other way."

I will mail you a copy of the "60 Minutes" segment.

Today's trivia

What state was last to ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery? When?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: Most soccer balls have 12 dark, pentagonal panels and 20 light, hexagonal panels.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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