A bed-and-breakfast grows in East Saint Louis–and tries to bring the neighborhood up along with it.
By Michael Marsh
In 1950, the year its population peaked around 82,000, East Saint Louis was a bustling railroad hub with meatpacking plants, foundries, and machine shops. Miles Davis grew up there, as did Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow and track stars Jackie Joyner-Kersee and her brother Al Joyner. But in the 60s and 70s a declining economy and racial tensions chased away residents, especially white ones. The current population is a little over 40,000, and 98 percent of the residents are black.
There are still abandoned buildings and vacant lots in the city, but there are also attractive homes and manicured lawns. New housing is under construction on the city's south side. The Crown Hotel, which faces the Saint Louis skyline across the Mississippi, and the Casino Queen riverboat have helped revitalize the riverfront, and Joyner-Kersee recently helped build a boys and girls club named after her.
"When you say East Saint Louis, everybody's got this negative connotation of the city," says Herrett Parker. "But it's not like that at all. We've lived here all our lives. Most of the people live here because this is their roots and it's all us. There is a sense of community here that a lot of places don't have anymore."
Parker and her husband, John, opened a bed-and-breakfast here three years ago, the only black-owned one in Illinois at the time (another one just opened on Chicago's south side). Their 88-year-old Tudor offers, in addition to the usual amenities, stereos, balconies, and working fireplaces. A "royalty package" includes drinks, a candlelight dinner, and breakfast in bed. (Prices start at $175 a night.)
The Parkers, who met in high school and were married in 1966, have worked many jobs over the years. John was an aircraft mechanic in the air force and became an electrician--he still works as an electrician for Anheuser-Busch. Herrett worked as a medical technician, a postal clerk, and a currency exchange manager. Four years ago, they heard a radio interviewer talking to Pam Pullman about her B and B in Saint Louis. Herrett booked a room to celebrate her husband's birthday. "By the time we got upstairs to our room and she closed the door," she says, "John and I turned around and looked at each other and said, 'We can do this.' We spent our whole time that weekend talking to her about going into business. We felt we could do it because, number one, I love to cook. Number two, we were always entertaining--John's got a big family, I've got a big family. We've got lots of friends. It just seemed perfect."
They spent six months on research. Aware of their hometown's negative image, they looked at several sites in Saint Louis but decided to rehab the house where they'd lived for almost two decades. The second floor had four bedrooms and a bathroom, and they decided to turn those rooms into two suites. "I don't want to go anywhere and share a bathroom with anyone," says Herrett. "We figured if we didn't want to do it, most people like us didn't want to do it. We did all that stuff when we were growing up--beating on the door to get in the bathroom, waiting on somebody. We said if we were going to do this and our people were going to be the ones to come, we had to make it a step above most B and Bs." They also installed a separate heating and air-conditioning system, hot water tanks, and new windows. And they renovated the kitchen downstairs, adding a commercial stove, refrigerator, and more counter space, hiring mostly black contractors.
It took them six months and cost more than $100,000, which they financed by taking out a second mortgage. They opened in June 1997 without a marketing plan, but soon the St. Louis Business Journal ran a small article. Then Saint Louis television stations featured them on newscasts. The Parkers have now played host to 225 couples and several parties, including one for 100 people. Most of their business comes from word of mouth, most of their guests from Saint Louis, though they also have a Web site (bbonline.com/il/parkergarden).
The Parkers also own the four-unit apartment building next door and three other apartment buildings in the city, which they see as another way of contributing to East Saint Louis. "When I came back from the service," explains John, "I discovered that most people who left and came back would stay here if there was adequate housing. They would work here if there were adequate jobs. Most of the time they can't find either one."
Last year the couple helped found the State Street T Business Association, a 15-member group that plans to beautify their area with banners, decorative planters, trash receptacles, new lighting, flowers, and trees. "The long and short of it," says John, "is we need to improve the way this area looks in order to try to draw people into this area."
The Parkers also recently bought two more buildings on the street. They're rehabbing one for apartments and plan to turn the other into a pizza parlor or perhaps a jazz bistro. Within the next year, they'll turn the pebble-filled lot that runs behind the buildings and up to the backyard of the B and B into a big patio. Down the road, they may build a fountain, enclose the patio, and add a banquet center to the B and B. They're increasingly confident that they can succeed in their hometown. "When you do something and do it well," says Herrett, "you can do it anywhere."