Photo: Valentine Conservation Community
Bringing the Outdoors Closer in East St. Louis, Illinois: The Valentine Conservation Community
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.”
It all began about 25 years ago, when Alvin Crowell started buying up the vacant lots across from his childhood home on Valentine Street, hoping to one day build a little park for his grandchildren. Douglas bought her first parcel in 2004, and now she and her siblings own about 90 percent of that block. After acquiring her most recent land in 2018, she approached the director of a forestry program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to apply for one of its $5,000 grants to help clear the invasive growth on the lot. Instead, he connected Douglas to the local HeartLands Conservancy, which helped her apply for the Confluence grant. Last November, she learned Valentine Conservation Community had won one of the coveted awards, which aim to support historically racially marginalized people working to protect natural places. “When I went after that $5,000 grant, I never knew how it would end up,” she laughs.
That influx of cash has allowed the group to finish clearing the land on that section of Valentine Street, where Valentine Conservation Community Park is set to officially open on May 28. Members have already ordered a swing set and a pair of carports for shelter and shade, and they’ll plant a pollinator garden when the weather turns. (The park will be public, but Douglas and her family will retain ownership of the land.) They’re also working on clearing the brush out of the adjacent Falling Springs Road—now closed to cars—to begin creating a public bike path that Douglas hopes will eventually stretch up to a dozen miles and connect East St. Louis to the neighboring town of Cahokia. “It’s got a lot of people really excited,” she says.
Though things are moving quickly all of a sudden, this park project represents a dream Douglas has had for years. “I’ve always thought that the whole area could be brought up to where people could raise their children and play in the yards like we used to do,” she says. “I believe it’s becoming a reality.” And she hopes the momentum started by the Valentine park and path will not only energize current residents, but also make East St. Louis more attractive to people like her sister, who lives in Detroit. “Even my sister said, ‘If you all get that park, we might be thinking about moving back,’” Douglas says. “This is kicking off a lot, getting that park and bike trail open. We want to let [everyone] see what a small group can do. And I hope it’s going to catch on.”