Development lures East St. Louis native back to the city. Leaders hope more like her follow
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
East St. Louis native Dianne Ritchett and her family have been investing in the city for generations.
She opened a clothing boutique at 25th and Ridge. Her older sister Herrett Clyte Parker started a bed-and-breakfast out of her home on State Street, which was the only Black-owned B&B in the state at the time. And their mother Carrie Mae Stover-Spencer ran a soul food restaurant on 15th Street.
Ritchett, now 72, is planning to invest again. She is buying a $300,000 house under construction in East St. Louis, where the median home value is about $54,000, according to the last census.
Ritchett is moving back to her hometown after more than 40 years in Seattle because she wants to be a part of the redevelopment happening in the city’s northeast end. A nonprofit has been clearing lots, renovating existing homes and building 20 new ones, which is the subdivision where Ritchett is moving.
The nonprofit also donated land for the Illinois State Police to move its District 11 headquarters there.
Luring people like Ritchett back to East St. Louis is what the nonprofit, Lansdowne Up, set out to do.
Lansdowne Up is named after the neighborhood where it is directing its efforts near Jones Park and the Jackie Joyner Kersee Center. It is calling the subdivision Lansdowne Park.
Local and state officials supported the development of both housing and the state police headquarters because they hoped it would help improve public safety and attract more people and businesses to the city.
The Illinois State Police has been partnering with East St. Louis police since 2020 to help it investigate violent crimes. The agencies reported the clearance rate for homicides increased from 40% in 2020 to 55% a year later.
More people and higher home values in East St. Louis are important because they can lower residents’ property taxes. They’ll take on some of the costs of city services and schools that a smaller group of homeowners now shoulder.
Some people have expressed concern that East St. Louis residents can’t afford $300,000 homes and the project might lead to gentrification. The median household income in the city is $24,000, and 30% of residents live in poverty.
Lansdowne Up is aware of those concerns. The nonprofit addresses them in the final answer in a list of frequently asked questions on its website.
“Is Lansdowne Park a gentrification project?” the question reads.
“No, Lansdowne Park is not a gentrification project. It is designed to spark revitalization of Lansdowne, transforming it into a thriving and vibrant neighborhood where people and businesses want to be,” reads the nonprofit’s response. “We believe a thriving neighborhood includes both new and long-time residents.”
Mark Mestemacher, chairman of the Lansdowne Up board, has said the group’s goal is the opposite of pushing residents out of the neighborhood; it wants to keep people from leaving.
The city lost 8,500 residents in the last decade, a 31% decrease in population, census data shows.
Ritchett is returning to East St. Louis with optimism for the future.
She says others will be interested in the Lansdowne Park subdivision because people are tired of paying upwards of $800,000 for a house. And she thinks businesses are sure to follow the 62,000-square-foot Illinois State Police facility.
The subdivision construction is expected to be finished by spring 2024. The state police headquarters is at least three years from completion.
Lexi Cortes is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.