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Lured by affordable housing, young people discover they can go back home

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 14, 2009 - Michael Halbrook swore he'd never move back.

The Granite City native grew up in the same town as his parents and his wife and his wife's parents. He'd moved away for college and settled into his life in nearby Collinsville.

"People would say at college, 'I'm proud to be from Granite, but I wasn't sure I could say that," Halbrook said. "In high school we joked that Granite sucked everyone back in. I'd gotten out, and I refused to go back."

Fast forward more than a decade and Halbrook is one of the city's biggest boosters. He's 31 and raising children just miles from his childhood home and just blocks from where his parents and wife's parents now live.

With affordable homes, plenty of green space and easy access to St. Louis, Granite City is an attractive option for people wanting to start a family. Halbrook is one of about 4,000 people between the ages of 25 and 34 living in Granite City, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Still, the city skews older than most: Its median age is 39.5, compared with the national average of 36.4.

The singles scene has never been Granite City's selling point. Out of a city of roughly 30,000 people, about 8 percent are between 18 and 24. The neighborhood taverns are after-work hangouts, not particularly known as good pick-up spots. Apartment complexes aren't plentiful for people not ready to buy a home.

As the economy has soured, younger residents could be forgiven for thinking the grass is greener elsewhere. Some of the newest (and youngest) hires are often first to be laid off from union jobs. The city's only Starbucks -- not a major employer in town but a place to meet up, nonetheless -- shuttered within the last year. Yet Halbrook and other young Granite City residents remain optimistic about the city's future.

A Change of Heart

On a recent weekday morning, as Halbrook worked as usual from his home near downtown Granite City, a call came from Holy Family Catholic Church about a computer problem that demanded immediate attention. Minutes later, Halbrook was on site to help.

While he earns his paychecks working for a company that collects and analyzes internet data, Halbrook essentially has a second career at Holy Family. He's the music director, on his parish's council and is the unofficial technology guru. Living five blocks away from his church is one of the things Halbrook likes most about living back in his hometown.

During the years when he lived away from Granite City, Halbrook wasn't involved at Holy Family and was less religiously observant. Soon after he and his wife, Suzanne, were married, they were house hunting when they came across a property in Granite City. Halbrook was skeptical about moving back. But when he took a close look at the corner home with a backyard and porch on a quiet block, he had a change of heart.

"That's when it all clicked for me," he said. "I told myself, 'I think I can do this,' and I've been happy with the decision ever since." And he's been back involved with the church ever since, as well.

Carolyn Nelson, a third-generation Granite City native, faced the same decision nearly two decades ago. After spending four years in Terre Haute, Ind., for college, she was offered a job in Florida. But she opted to return to her hometown instead.

Nelson was 21 when she moved back to Granite City and found a job in St. Louis. Now a social worker for the state of Illinois, Nelson said she doesn't regret the decision. "I know Granite City has a bad name in the Metro East community, but it's a great place to live," she said. "Otherwise I wouldn't have come back."

Drawn by convenience, low cost of housing

Carrie Nelson (no relation to Carolyn), her husband, Jeff, and their three daughters moved to Granite City in 2007 from north St. Louis County. Nelson, who grew up in the Central West End, said she had grown tired of the sprawling suburbs.

The Nelson girls played softball games in Granite City before the family decided to move there. Carrie Nelson said she was drawn by the shopping, the schools, the low cost of housing and the convenience to St. Louis.

"You can't find the value you get here in St. Louis," she said. "I don't think people realize how easy it is to get downtown (St. Louis). You can get to Busch Stadium in 20 minutes. Sometimes when the mill is in action it's dusty and stinky, but those are small prices to pay."

Halbrook has lived in the same home for almost five years and doesn't plan to leave anytime soon. He said he is enamored with the low cost of housing that enabled the family to expand in numbers without having to move.

After returning to Granite City, Halbrook began tracking down high school friends with whom he'd lost touch. He figured that many of them had made good on their promise to leave. But a Facebook search showed that some either had never left or, like him, had returned for family or a career. His friends who live locally are in fields such as information technology, engineering and dentistry.

They are among the young homeowners in Granite City. Vicki Royce, manager of Century 21 Royce Reality, said most first-time homebuyers she's seeing in the city are in their 20s or early 30s. Many have taken advantage of a Madison County program that provides financial incentives for people buying a home in the region.

Although credit is getting harder to come by, young homebuyers who can get it are thinking about living in places like Granite City that are economical, Royce said.

"For younger people, there's still the attraction of making a good home investment," Carrie Nelson said.

Creating a Social Life

Carolyn Nelson gets nostalgic when she thinks about going to shows and shops in downtown Granite City as a kid. The city center underwent such a change over the years, however, that it became unrecognizable to her.

"It got blighted as I was growing up, and by the time I left it had gone completely downhill," she said.

Having a vibrant downtown is one way that Granite can attract and keep young people, and Carolyn Nelson said the city's moving in the right direction. The idea, as reported in an earlier article, is to create a cultural arts center that includes performing arts spaces and a new movie theater downtown.

The city's two-screen theater located in a strip mall shut down and became an Applebee's. Carolyn Nelson said she'll go to Edwardsville for dinner and a movie but would rather stay local for her dining and entertainment. "I'd rather pay a hometown person than pay a conglomerate," she said.

Carrie Nelson, the relative newcomer to town, said she's still discovering neighborhood pubs and new places to shop. Halbrook said that while he'd like to see more local entertainment options, he's accustomed to taking the short ride into St. Louis. He's not much into the bar scene, instead preferring to take family and friends to a local hotspot, Ravanelli's, for a chicken dinner.

Much of Halbrook's social life revolves around his church. He is a member of the core team of a program called Merging Available Resources Together Helping All (MARTHA), which pools the resources of congregants to help members who are struggling financially and need help paying for things like their children's tuition. The program also includes monthly swap meets and seminars on topics such as dealing with creditors and how to maintain your home garden.

Halbrook helped set up a lounge in a basement room on the church grounds where parishioners who have been laid off or who want counseling after weekend masses can congregate. Among those who have lost their jobs recently are his father, a Granite City Steel bricklayer for more than 30 years, and his two uncles.

In his conversations with the older generation about Granite City, Halbrook said he's noticed a striking sense of optimism.

"The layoffs were the most devastating thing I can imagine here, and yet I haven't heard anyone be negative," he said. "We're telling them, this is where we want to be."

Granite City Sports culture

"Granite is a huge wrestling town, and it all starts with the high school wrestling tradition," says Todd Laux, who's quite familiar with the city's sports scene.

Laux is general manager of Hughes Intensive Training (H.I.T.) Squad, a center where everyone from the Granite City police to international athletes come for weight training, boxing and mixed martial arts. What's the connection to wrestling? Laux said many young wrestlers who competed in high school and college make the transition to martial arts.

The gym's founder and namesake, Matt Hughes, was a high school state wrestling champion in nearby Hillsboro, and went on to be a two-time All-American at Eastern Illinois University. He's become famous for being a nine-time Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight champion.

H.I.T. Squad, a 14,000-square-foot facility located on old Army grounds, opened in Granite City in early 2008. Hughes trains there often, as does fellow UFC star and part-owner Robbie Lawler, along with many young wrestlers and boxers. Some stay in barracks that have been converted to dorm-style rooms.

"We like this location because we're just across the bridge from downtown St. Louis," Laux said. "And we're in a city that appreciates the training we offer."

Granite City is also known for its sports fields and ice skating rink at Wilson Park. A new addition is a skateboard park that's proven popular with teenagers.

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