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Durbin turns up heat over East St. Louis closing times

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 11, 2012 - The closing times of clubs and liquor stores may not seem like an issue that would capture the attention of the second-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate.

But for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, it's personal. 

“For a number of a reasons – because it is my hometown,” said Durbin, answering a question from a reporter on why he's devoting his time to the issue. “And for the longest time, it’s been difficult – if not impossible – to find partners to work with to help this city. We have a president of the United States that knows East St. Louis. A president that I can go to, talk to – he’ll understand the challenge here.

“I hope in some small way we can start to turn the community around,” he added. “It means a lot to me personally, and it means a lot to the people in the area.”

Durbin has been speaking out for weeks in an effort to cajole East St. Louis officials to close liquor stores and clubs earlier. He ratcheted up that message  Wednesday after a meeting with East St. Louis’ religious and civic leaders.

“This city of East St. Louis needs a tomorrow,” Durbin said after the event at Mt. Paran Missionary Baptist Church. “If it’s going to have a tomorrow, we’ve got to step up today. And what I’ve asked them to do is them to come together now – not with some message from Washington or message from Springfield or a message from anywhere. But a message from the neighborhoods of East St. Louis to us.”

For weeks, Durbin has advocated closing clubs and liquor stores at 11 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. Keeping the establishments open at all hours, he said, is one reason crime in the city is so high. (Click here to watch a video of Durbin calling for earlier closings.)

“All of us understand what’s going on there,” Durbin said. “As long as these clubs are open all night, it’s an invitation for more crime and more murders and the kind of people who come to this community that should not be part of it.”

While numerous religious, civic and law enforcement officials were present for Durbin’s visit, East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks, Jr., was not. He did not return a phone call from the Beacon.

Parks has been opposed to earlier closings, arguing such a move would deprive the city of revenue. In an open letter to Durbin posted by KSDK earlier this year, Parks wrote, "Those of us closest to the situation have evaluated the industry and have evaluated East St. Louis and have determined that the current hours are appropriate for East St. Louis.

“In addition, the city is not looking to abolish one of the key industries of the East St. Louis economy," wrote Parks, noting that the city is on pace to collect $140,000 in liquor license fees in 2012. "Closing early would devastate and lead to the closure of at least 10 businesses, and would greatly hamper another seven, negatively impacting all sorts of tax revenue for the city. Closing business leaves empty buildings, leading to theft and vandalism. Even worse, closing businesses and reducing revenues put families out of jobs and put more people into poverty.

"We won't do it!" Parks added.

Closing the clubs earlier also got a cold reception from Bernadette Bowens, an East St. Louis resident who disagrees with Durbin.

“You can’t put that on the tavern owners; they had nothing to do with anybody getting killed,” Bowens said.

“If you try to close them at 11 p.m., they’ll come back and say close them at 10 p.m. – then they’ll come back and say close them period,” she added, noting that she was disappointed that Parks didn’t show up to the meeting. “Everybody needs a job. Everybody needs a job. And they act like East St. Louis is the worst town in the whole world. And it’s not.”

While he said there would be “serious question” whether closing clubs and bars earlier would result in a loss of revenue, Durbin asked, “Is it worth $140,000 to have people gunned down in the streets every other week in East St. Louis?

“We’ve got to get down to basics here,” Durbin said. “The first thing people need is a safe city to live in and build your business in. Then you can start talking about the future.”

Added Johnny Scott, president of the East St. Louis branch of the NAACP: “When you have a majority of citizens saying we need to close the nightclubs after certain hours, it needs to be done.”

“It’s just that simple,” Scott said.

SNL skit stings city

Durbin’s visit came on the heels of a "Saturday Night Live" skit that cast East St. Louis in a decidedly negative light.

The sketch lampooned how former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has pandered to voters in his presidential bid. In the sketch, "Romney" remarked that “the only place that has ever truly felt like home is right here – East St. Louis, Ill.”

“Are you crazy?” comedian Kenan Thompson said. “This is a hellhole.”

“Really? I find it to be such a lovely place,” said Jason Sudekis, the comedian portraying Romney.

“Trust me; I’m the mayor,” Thompson replied. “This place is a hellhole. We live in a hellhole”

Durbin said he had not seen the sketch, but added, “People can make jokes all they want. But it’s no joke when people are getting gunned down, when policemen are getting shot in the face. All of us who call East St. Louis part of our heritage, we want to make a better day for this city.”

Zachary Lee, the pastor at Mt. Paran Missionary Baptist Church, said he wanted East St. Louis to become a “wholesome community,” in contrast to how "Saturday Night Live" portrayed the city.

“We’re going to make East St. Louis the town that anyone would want to come in,” Lee said.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.