I don't know who reads the stuff I distribute here. But, for those who do, I'd like to point with pride to something that's going on in the place where I grew up.
Belleville, Illinois-- Many know it as the home of some pretty famous people.
The late Buddy Ebsen, former US senator Alan Dixon, tennis super-star Jimmy Connors, golf's Jay Haas, and his uncle Bob Goalby are just a few. There are many other notable, but perhaps less generally recognizable, natives that we are just as proud to call sons and daughters of the county seat of St. Clair County.
Now let me tell you something that you might not know. Belleville...always a jewel in the crown of southern Illinois... is making a strong and proud comeback from some difficult times. Between say, 1975 and 2000, Belleville had gone from a clean, friendly, well-manicured and proud city to one that some of us were not so anxious to recognize as our home town. Crime increased. Property values decreased. Businesses moved to other surrounding communities, or closed. Residents moved out of the nice, older homes in Belleville to nice new homes in the country, or elsewhere. The older homes became poorly-maintained rental properties or were bought by struggling, low-income families. Schools were hard-pressed to maintain their high standards. All of this made for a less than savory situation, especially in Belleville's older neighborhoods. The city was in danger of becoming one big, crime-infested slum. It was not a pretty sight.
The reasons for all of this are fodder for another article. But, over the last five years the city has made considerable progress toward social stabilization and economic advancement . The slumlords were put out of business. The police have made major headway in running the criminal element out of town. Businesses, large and small, have been courted and have found Belleville a more attractive place to set up shop. So they have done so. Restaurants, bars, small theatres and other establishments have begun to flourish in the downtown shopping and entertainment district. In short, the good people who care about Belleville took charge of a bad situation. And with some hard work, and determination, they have made it better.
This "new Belleville" can only continue to improve under the leadership of recently-elected Mayor Mark Eckert. I have known Mark since we were both small boys growing up in the Henry Raab neighborhood. We were raised in the same church. He is a smart, hard-working, approachable and out-going fellow with his heart (and it's a big one) in the right place. He doesn't care who gets the credit... (imagine anyone saying that about a politician)... just as long as the job gets done. He meets people well. There's no pretense or arrogance. He presents himself professionally in almost any setting. And, he has energy to burn. Just about anywhere you might go in Belleville, you are likely to see Mark. And he will probably be on his way to somewhere trying to make things better in his home town. The city is in strong and caring hands with Mark Eckert.
I could go into some of the wonderful new plans and developments that I am privy to that are anticipated to materialize over the next 5-10 years. But instead let me say...keep your eyes on Belleville. Drive through the downtown area. Take a look at some of the new subdivisions, housing developments and businesses. Next weekend's "Art-on-the-Square" (recognized as one of the best art shows in the nation) would be a good time to make your examination. The city's one-time greatness is most definitely returning, if not already in place.
Once again...those of us born in Belleville are able to say..."That's my home town"... with heads held very high.