When Lillie Douglas was growing up on Valentine Street in East St. Louis, Illinois, she remembers roller skating down the sidewalks in her neighborhood. She swung from tire swings suspended in the trees and played stickball in the street. She and her siblings would bike down nearby Falling Springs Road, one of the only streets in the area that the city would regularly resurface with black tar. “It was the perfect place to ride your bike,” recalls Douglas, 71. “The ride was just exhilarating. The only bad part was you’d get black tar on your shoes.”
Over the years, though, Valentine Street began to empty out. Her neighbors’ old yards got choked with invasive plants, and that perfect bike path became overgrown with shrubbery. “East St. Louis was a city that was declining,” Douglas says. “The reason I say was is I believe it’s on its way back up now.” She should know—Douglas and her family have been working to revitalize the old neighborhood for decades, and their efforts are gaining steam.
Douglas is now president of the Valentine Conservation Community, a nonprofit she leads with her brother, Alvin Crowell. Together with their sisters Alma Green and Clara Crowell, brother Gloston Crowell, Douglas’s daughter, Necole Alexander, and an excited group of community members, they have a vision of a new park, garden, and bike path/nature trail near their childhood home. And with the help of a recent $100,000 grant from the Conservation Alliance’s Confluence Program, the group is about to turn that vision into reality.
“We’re really trying to restore [the area] back to its natural beauty,” Douglas says. “It has great potential. This is kind of the beginning for the south end of East St. Louis, to help bring back some of the pride in the city.”