Chapter 1, "Life on the Mississippi: East St. Louis,
Illinois," Summary and Analysis
East St. Louis is a city in ruins with no doctors or hospitals that care for pregnant women, no garbage
removal service and no escape from poverty. The buildings on the main street are abandoned and
chemical plants pour pollution into the air. Because unemployment is so high, the city can't make
money from tax revenues and has to close down city hall and fire service workers who do things like
pump out the flooded sewers. Almost everyone here is black and desperately poor.
The city is located below some bluffs where white, wealthier residents live. The sewage and factory
runoff from these residents' homes pours into East St. Louis but the more wealthy citizens do not
contribute any funds to cleaning up the lower area. Kozol says many black communities across
America lie in low flood plains and get the trash and runoff from more prosperous cities. East St.
Louis experiences sewage-flooded playgrounds, typhoid, cholera and a high level of mercury arsenic
and lead in the ground from chemical factory runoff and smelting. Children from the area test
dangerously high for lead in their blood.
Kozol pays a visit to the area with a religious worker named Sister Julia Huiskamp from the
Daughters of Charity. He sees burning garbage, threatening teenagers, and the playground where
sewage is sometimes puddled. Now, greenery hides the dangerous chemicals and germs beneath. The
sister and Kozol stop to talk to some children. One seems only to know herself as "Little Sister." The
other kids tell him about how a friend has been recently beaten to death with a brick and her body
dumped behind the playground. The children point out that one of their teachers comes to the
murdered girl's funeral. Another child remarks that his grandmother has been shot dead. All this is
said matter-of-factly, along with prattle about pets and squirrels.
Kozol sees the children's trashy school. Next to this dilapidated building is a new school that has been
constructed incorrectly. The roof is too heavy and the walls are sinking into the ground, so the kids
can't use this new school. When it's almost time to go, Sister Huiskamp has to call a cab before dark,
or the driver will not enter this neighborhood.
At night in East St. Louis, plumes of brown smoke pour out of the chemical plants, leading to a
higher-than-average rate of asthma for children growing up here. People on the bluffs are out of the
path of this air pollution, but East St. Louis is downwind of all the toxins. The author describes shack-
like homes next to factories of Monsanto, Big River Zinc, Cerro Copper and a garbage burning plant.
Many residents have been given $400 payments to keep them from suing the plants for the damage
they are inflicting. Chemical plants do not pay taxes to the city because they incorporate their factory
areas into small, independent towns within the township of East St. Louis. Sauget, one such town,
consists only of strip clubs, a factory and a lottery outlet. Kozol notes that the lottery money is