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New I-64 interchange to include Black cemetery monument, space for pedestrians and bikes

Illinois Department of Transportation
This conceptual map shows current paved areas that will be removed from the Interstate 64 and Illinois 111 intersection in green, new pavement in pink, the current state right-of-way in black and the approximate site of the former Black and paupers cemeteries in brown.

Two looping ramps will be eliminated in favor of a diamond-shaped design at the new Interstate 64 and Illinois 111 interchange in Washington Park.

The Illinois Department of Transportation will also move human remains left behind during a 1960s cemetery relocation; erect a monument to Black and poor people buried in the vicinity; and include a pedestrian sidewalk and shoulder space for bicycles on the new Illinois 111 bridge.

Those are some of the takeaways from an IDOT open house held Tuesday at James Avant Elementary School in Washington Park. The purpose was to inform the public about a $28.5 million project to replace the bridge and connecting ramps to improve safety and traffic flow.

“The bridge has been hit several times by trucks, and that can cause shifting, whether you see it or not,” said Washington Park Mayor Leonard Moore, one of about 25 area residents who attended the open house.

“Bridges can collapse. I’ve seen it. And that’s something we don’t want to happen.”

The Illinois 111 bridge, built in 1973, has deterioration issues and a clearance of 14 feet, 2 inches (posted at 14 feet, 1 inch as a precaution), according to IDOT. That’s compared to today’s minimum standard of 16 feet and desired clearance of 16 feet, 9 inches.

Illinois 111 also is known as Kingshighway.

Moore said residents of Washington Park and surrounding communities will benefit from improvements at the Kingshighway and Bunkum Road intersection that are expected as part of the interchange project; and the allocation of bridge space for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The latter was the No. 1 priority for people who provided feedback during IDOT’s last public-comment period on the interchange project in 2019.

Moore also gave his blessing to IDOT’s plan to move human remains from the former Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery for Blacks and St. Clair County Cemetery for paupers and to erect a monument.

“I don’t have any doubt that they’re going to do what’s necessary to satisfy the community,” Moore said.

Teri Maddox
Belleville News-Democrat
Fairview Heights resident Carl Weissert points out the location of his farmland to Joe Galloy, manager of the Illinois Department of Transportation’s cultural resources unit, at a open house hosted Tuesday by IDOT at James Avant Elementary School in Washington Park.

Diamond-shaped design 

The diamond-shaped design is considered better suited to the I-64 and Illinois 111 interchange than the current partial cloverleaf, according to Cindy Stafford, IDOT’s location studies engineer for District 8, based in Collinsville.

On Tuesday, Stafford pointed to the two looping ramps on a map showing locations and types of vehicle accidents in the past five years.

“These curves are pretty tight, and that results in crashes quite often,” she said.

The interchange project is in the first of three phases, so plans still are evolving, but a conceptual map indicates that IDOT will need to buy a few sections of privately owned land to expand its right-of-way.

Stafford said construction would begin in 2024 at the earliest or possibly 2025, depending on unexpected factors or changes in funding status.

Carl Weissert, 80, of Fairview Heights, attended the open house because his family owns farmland on the southeast side of the interchange. His main concern is proper drainage.

“(The bridge replacement) shouldn’t be a negative,” he said. “It should be an improvement. I’m just here to make sure of that.”

Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery, also known as Lawn Ridge, was a popular burial ground for Black residents of East St. Louis, according to a 1968 story in the Belleville News-Democrat. It adjoined St. Clair County Cemetery for paupers of all races for a total of 25 acres.

Douglas-Lawnridge was largely abandoned after World War II, and many of the tombstones disappeared.

The state of Illinois hired Keeley Bros. Construction Co. in East St. Louis to move an estimated 3,000 graves to Booker T. Washington Cemetery in Centreville and Sunset Memorial Gardens in Millstadt to make way for I-64 construction, the BND reported.

Weissert remembers the relocation project. The remains were put in boxes and transported by combination ambulance-hearses owned by his neighbor.

“That was before the interstate even existed,” Weissert said.

Teri Maddox
Belleville News-Democrat
Washington Park community activist Malissa Blanchard talks with Illinois Department of Transportation officials Tuesday at James Avant Elementary School. IDOT held an open house to explain its $28.5 million plan to replace the Interstate 64 and Illinois 111 interchange.

Remembering the dead 

Former Washington Park resident Scott Rose told IDOT officials about the Black cemetery in 2019, during the first public-comment period on the interchange project. State archaeologists later found human bones that apparently had been left behind by Keeley.

The discovery triggered the Illinois Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act, which provides guidelines on how to handle unmarked graves, according to Joe Galloy, manager of IDOT’s cultural resources unit.

Another Washington Park resident who attended the open house on Tuesday was Malissa Blanchard, 73, a local activist and founding president of the non-profit Community Awakening Civic Organization.

Blanchard has been pushing for IDOT to erect a “large” cemetery monument at the I-64 and Illinois 111 interchange for three years. She praised Mayor Moore for taking up the cause and making sure local voices were being heard and respected.

“Those graves that have been disturbed will not go unnoticed,” Blanchard said. “At some time, they were alive. They were human beings, not throwaways. We will never know their names, but we know they existed.”

Galloy said human remains would be moved at the same time as interchange construction and only in areas where excavation is planned.

Galley noted that archaeologists generally can peel off a surface layer and see anomalies in the soil that indicate the presence of burials below, then carefully dig to retrieve bones or other remains.

“We would make sure that nobody is left behind,” he said.

IDOT is conducting a survey on its website, asking people to comment generally on the interchange project and specifically on relocation of human remains and the monument. Questions include:

  • “IDOT proposes to relocate the remaining burials at the project site to Sunset Gardens of Memory in Millstadt, where the previous burials were relocated. What are your thoughts?” 
  • “How should the relocated remains be memorialized?” 

Sunset Gardens of Memory is the former Sunset Memorial Gardens. Booker T. Washington Cemetery largely has been abandoned, except for periodic clean-ups by volunteers.

IDOT is accepting survey responses through Aug. 23. People can also email questions to Matthew.Meyer@Illinois.gov.

Illinois Department of Transportation
This map shows locations and types of vehicle accidents in the past five years at the Interstate 64 and Illinois 111 interchange, which includes two looping ramps. The new diamond-shaped design will improve safety, according to Illinois Department of Transportation officials.

Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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