East St. Louis has seen its share of jackrabbits — folks making a big fanfare and big promises about developments that fizzle as quickly as they were made.
They have been assembling a 28-acre park next to the Samuel Gompers Homes public housing complex. The effort includes getting ownership of more than 100 parcels, including tracking down the heirs of property owners, across four city blocks. They got the city, the housing authority and the park district to all cooperate. They got donors to put together $2.5 million and are seeking another $2 million. They removed eight derelict houses, 40 truckloads of trash and 2,000 tires.
No public money. No expectation that government will do the job. Just a lot of low-key work by a lot of church volunteers — many hands making light work.
So why all this effort?
East St. Louis has parks, but the kids in the housing projects cannot easily get to them. This park will be right next to them with soccer and baseball fields, an exercise path, an outdoor chapel, splash pads, a flower garden, a botanical garden, a community garden, a living laboratory and an outdoor stage.
And at the very center of the effort is this simple truth about how a park can change the future.
“All children create themselves out of their environment,” Cantrell said. “All children define themselves by what they see around them. If everything is broken, untended, that affects how they see themselves. What we know of kids, humans, cities and counties is growth follows beauty. I want our kids to see their worth in the environment around them.”
Big hopes have started with much smaller sparks.