East St. Louis and the Old Man River Project

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A Brief History

On April 1, 1861, the municipality called East St. Louis was established.  At its peak East St. Louis, Illinois, was a great city. Built on the wetlands across from St. Louis after the Civil War the city forced itself on land the Mississippi River often tried to reclaim. East St. Louis survived and even thrived, with a booming industrial and commercial base. In the 1950s it reached its zenith of 82,000 people and was named an all American City, an honor proudly displayed on a billboard-sized sign in a park.

Digging Deeper

But alas, soon East St. Louis began to decline. The industrial base began to move out of the city or close down, followed by retail outlets boarding up their storefronts. As the percentage of African Americans began to increase Whites began moving out. African Americans, who had long chafed under an all White city government and police force, began to assert their rights during the Civil Rights Movement. East St. Louis always had a rough side with red light districts, speakeasies during Prohibition, clubs where Miles Davis and Ike Turner once played, and gambling all controlled by mob boss Buster Wortman but the vice was supplanted by violence which gave the city a national reputation for crime.

Urban blight in East St. Louis.

By the sixties it was apparent the city was crashing, the fading billboard taking on an air of irony.  State and federal money and programs poured in but did little to reverse the tide. One person stepped up to devote her whole life and fortune into saving the city. World class dancer Katherine Dunham had largely retired from performing when she adopted East St. Louis as her hometown. She bought four houses, turning one of them into an institute and museum. She worked to teach young people dancing and give them hope of a better world.
While Dunham was teaching at Southern Illinois University she met R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller had single-handedly invented himself as a prophet and innovator. He invented new cars and mass produced housing, all of which were commercial failures.  Success finally came for Fuller with his invention of the geodesic dome, a traingle based structure enclosing and defining space with a minimum of materials. Fuller was well known and admired in the St. Louis area for his design of the Climatron. The Climatron is essentially a greenhouse whose glass panels filling the space between the struts soar over a collection of tropical plants in the Missouri Botanical Gardens.  The contrast between the geodesic dome which seems to hover with the brick boxes on the garden grounds and the surrounding neighborhood is still striking after more than 50 years.

The Climatron greenhouse at the Missouri Botanical Garden, side entrance, 2004

Dunham approached Fuller about designing a solution for East St. Louis. Called the Old Man River Project, Fuller was given a free hand to create his vision. Writing about the project Fuller said “cities developed entirely before the thought of electricity or automobiles or before any of the millions of inventions registered in the United States Patent Office. For eminently mobile man, cities have become obsolete in terms of yesterday’s functions – warehousing both new and formerly manufactured goods and housing immigrant factory workers.”
Volunteering his time without fee, Fuller completed a grand design for the project then left the details to architecture students at Washington University. In late 1971 he and his team revealed the plan and a scale model to a public meeting in East St. Louis. Just north of the Eads bridge and the Gateway Arch a crater shaped structure a mile across would arise. Along the terraced outside of the crater were 2,500 square foot housing compartments, enough for 125,000 residents. The inside rim descended along terraces for businesses and community use down to a central area of athletic fields. Over all of it there would be a 1.000 foot high geodesic dome, almost 400 feet higher than the Gateway Arch,  to keep out the rain and snow. Fuller called it “an entirely feasible and practical new way for humans to live together economically.”
At the end of his presentation a member of the audience spoke up. “We don’t need domes, we need jobs.”  That particular citizen seems to have had a better understanding of the needs of East St. Louis than the esteemed Buckminster Fuller!
Fuller answered him with his sincere, Utopian view of the future. ”Young man, I see a future where you don’t need jobs.”  There has perhaps never been a better example of the divergence that develop between a planner and the public in the area of perceived needs and desires.
Fuller’s students estimated that the project would cost $700 million, several billion in today’s money. They did not, however, calculate who was willing to pay the price. A Republican member of the state legislature immediately dubbed the project the “solar rib pit.”
As part of the project, Fuller insisted on rejecting any funding that might tie their hands or impose changes. There was almost no support for the idea with the exception of one East St. Louis attorney.
Wyvetter Younge was a longtime advocate for her hometown. In the past she had proposed building a kibbutz in the city and tried to attract another World’s Fair. After her election to the House of Representatives in 1974 she introduced a bill for the Old Man River Project, something she repeated every year until her death in 2008.  Kathrine Dunham never lost faith in the project either. A nonprofit group supporting the Old Man River project hung on for years before quietly dissolving. The blueprints, papers and model are safely locked away in an archive.  Fuller was somewhat delusional about the amount of support the project attracted which in fact was little. But Fuller was optimistic that eventually the project would be built when the world was ready to accept it.

R. Buckminster Fuller stands in front of a depiction of his domed city design at its first public showing at a community meeting in East St. Louis, Illinois.

When the Old Man River project was unveiled East St Louis had about 70,000 residents. It now has less than 27,000 and is dropping every year. A typical block in East St. Louis is empty ground dotted with a few standing houses, many of which are empty and ready for demolition. The federal courthouse and the Shriner’s temple are about the only landmarks of better days. Dunham’s three houses are vandalized, the walls kicked in to steal the copper wire and pipes, and her museum is barely hanging on. By any measure the city has failed. Every effort to improve the city, Utopian or otherwise, has failed. East St .Louis has only succeeded at one thing: presenting a lesson to the rest of urban America about how not to succeed.

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever visited East St. Louis?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Sieden, L. Steven.  Buckminster Fuller’s Universe: His Life and Work.  Basic Books, 2000.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Steve Yelvington of R. Buckminster Fuller standing in front of a depiction of his domed city design at its first public showing at a community meeting in East St. Louis, Illinois, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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About Author

Greg Bailey

Greg Bailey is a St. Louis based history writer and journalist. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois, the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the Washington University School of Law.