CENTREVILLE — In Lincoln and Hazel LeFlore’s front yard, near the street, is what appears to be a fountain, poking out of the ground. It flows continuously, carving a trench that runs alongside their home and into the woods out back.
Look closer, though, and take a breath — and it’s clear this is no fountain, but rather an open pipe that leads to a sewer. Pressure popped the cap off years ago, allowing raw sewage to flow to the surface. The LeFlores said if they tried closing it, the wastewater would instead pour from their toilets, bathtubs and sinks. The same would happen at their neighbors’ homes.
For 15 years, sewage has been flowing in their yard, the couple says, despite their frequent complaints to local utility and city officials. They can’t sit outside. They can’t enjoy visits from family and friends.
“It’s horrible,” said Lincoln LeFlore, 69, so angry he can’t talk about it without cursing. “I have raw (expletive) sewage in front of my house.”
Their situation is similar to that of dozens of residents of this town, which was ranked last year as the poorest in the United States, based on census data. Just 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis, Centreville was incorporated in 1957. In 1960 — when the area was full of steel, railroading, meatpacking and other industrial jobs — the city had nearly 12,800 people, 28% of whom were white.
Over the years, as factories closed and jobs left, white families moved away. Centreville is now home to about 5,000 residents; over 95% are African American. The median home value is $47,900. The main businesses are the few strip clubs and questionable massage parlors on the southeast edge of town.
The city sits in the Mississippi River flood plain known as the American Bottom, which stretches across the Metro East from Alton south to the Kaskaskia River. Its eastern edge is the river bluffs, where the larger cities of Belleville and Fairview Heights are perched.
Flooding and sewer problems have long plagued the area’s system of drainage ditches, levees and pumps, but Centreville residents said their problems have become far worse and more frequent over the past 20 years.
A main stormwater drainage canal through Centreville, that one resident recalled he used to fish in as a child 35 years ago, has been taken over by vegetation and trash. Where the canal enters Centreville behind homes on Belleview Avenue, water instead spreads through backyards and into houses. Nearby homes have been abandoned, slowly taken by the water.
In parts of the city, dirt trenches are used to drain runoff instead of storm drains. The trenches, however, have not been maintained. Clogged culverts under driveways prevent water from moving. The trenches fill with standing water, trash and swirls of colors, surrounding homes like moats, and breeding mosquitoes.
A system of above-ground pumps moves wastewater through the sewer system, but the motors often don’t work because they are overtaken by stormwater or overwhelmed by clogged lines. Some are cracked and covered in tarps after being struck by cars.
Wastewater bubbles out of manholes and into the streets, mixing with runoff. Many residents can’t flush their toilets and have to resort to using public restrooms.
During a heavy rain, when the pump closest to his home is turned on, Walter Byrd, 63, said he’s seen “sewer waste shoot straight up in the air at least 8 feet out of the manhole because it can’t go nowhere.” Others say sewage backs up into their bathrooms and kitchen sinks. Many have installed cleanout pipes, so they can remove the cap and let sewage run into their front yards instead.
When temperatures rise, they use pounds of lime powder to try to absorb the stomach-churning smell. Hazel LeFlore has tried pouring bleach in the trench in her yard.
The storm drains that the city does have are quickly overwhelmed in a downpour, flooding streets and trapping residents. Muck gets left behind. Streets have buckled and crumbled, some nearly impassable in small cars. Residents battle mold and mildew.
Patricia Greenwood, 70, grew up in her home on Piat Place and has lived there 26 years with her husband, Lonnie, 68, and their teen son with Down syndrome. They adopted him after raising their own children.
Greenwood said she constantly sprays bleach on the dark spots spreading across her windowsills and walls.
“I do it every day. I might’ve used so much that it’s eating the wood away. I can’t get rid of it,” she said, worried about her son’s health. “I’ve painted and repainted, and it still came back.”
There’s story after story of residents spending tens of thousands replacing walls, floors, roofs, water heaters, air conditioners, duct work and washing machines — even building contraptions to raise equipment off the floors.
Many are elderly and have lived in Centreville for decades. They worked blue-collar jobs, raised their children and paid off and invested in their homes. Now their homes assess for little. They can’t afford to move and start over.
Lincoln LeFlore worked for 42 years as a railroad worker; Hazel was a social worker for 35. Together, they raised two children.
“And what I got?” Lincoln LeFlore said, raising his voice. “I thought I could come back here and relax at my house, but it smells out here. It stinks out here.”
Centreville Mayor Marius Jackson, 48, said neglect started long before his tenure began 12 years ago, and the city lacks funding to make the major fixes.
Officials at Commonfields of Cahokia Public Water District, which maintains most of Centreville’s pumps and sewer lines, said there’s little they can do. The wastewater has nowhere to go because the lines release into East St. Louis’ sewer system, which is backed up, said Dennis Traiteur, Commonfields superintendent.
A reporter visited, called and emailed the East St. Louis Public Works Department, but officials did not return messages.
Residents said that after years of their complaints going nowhere and everyone pointing fingers, they felt powerless. That was until nearly two years ago, when Byrd walked into the law office of Nicole Nelson.
Nelson was working at the Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, a nonprofit that helps low-income residents with civil legal services. Byrd came to see her in March 2018 about bills he was getting from American Bottoms, the Village of Sauget-owned treatment facility that handles Centreville’s wastewater. Residents also pay Illinois American Water for water and Commonfields for sewer line maintenance.
Byrd, who insisted he’s current on his American Bottoms bill, joked about having to pay to treat his wastewater.
“Why do I have to pay anyway?” he told Nelson. “It doesn’t go anywhere. It just sits in my yard.”
That raised her eyebrows. Come see for yourself, he told her.
“I could see feces and toilet paper sitting by his steps,” Nelson said. She had to figure out why.
After leaving Land of Lincoln a few months later and forming her own firm, Equity Legal Services, Nelson enlisted the help of an acquaintance, Kalila Jackson, an attorney at the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, which investigates housing discrimination.
Byrd connected the lawyers to other residents with similar stories. “What we thought was one block, quickly became an entire community dealing with this,” Jackson said.
The two attorneys have since volunteered countless hours documenting complaints, trying to figure out who is responsible and find relief for the residents.
“We knew we couldn’t sit idly by,” said Jackson, comparing the plight to other predominantly black and poor cities facing environmental hazards. “Hearing about Flint, Newark and Elmwood (Park). This is something akin to that right here in our backyard. We couldn’t do nothing.”
They have waded through an alphabet soup of utilities and public agencies at the city, county and state levels.
Resident complaints have only led to temporary appeasements — a promise to send someone out or a line drained only to back up a week later.
“We see ad hoc fixes — fixing a part here and there — but no overall fix,” Nelson said. “No one has stepped up to say, ‘How do we fix this for this community that is obviously suffering?’”
One night last month, it rained and rained. On Piat Place, where Earlie Fuse lives, water filled front yards and stretched up the block. At 4:30 a.m., Fuse heard a boom. No way, he thought. Not again.
Fuse, 79, has replaced a wall in the basement five times over the past 28 years. A $10,000 gift from his granddaughter whom he helped raise paid for a new wall in October. She insisted on it. Despite the wall’s newness, it collapsed again on Jan. 11. This makes six walls, two circuit boards, six furnaces and seven hot water tanks he’s had to replace, Fuse said.
After spending $142 on a new pump and hoses, he seemed resigned as he pumped muddy water out of his basement into the street. “I can’t worry,” he said. “I can’t afford to have a heart attack.”
Fuse worked as a teen in Arkansas baling cotton and driving a truck before moving to the St. Louis area to work at its steel factories. For 17 years, he worked two jobs: assembling hot water tanks at night and cleaning East St. Louis School District schools during the day.
His wages, plus a little luck at the Casino Queen, helped him buy his house in Centreville, he said. He had four children and helped raise four grandchildren. He and his wife separated about five years ago.
“I want to leave, but I got all my money in this house,” Fuse said. He added, “I know everybody, and everybody knows me.”
He said he’s complained to whoever he can about how quickly the storm drains get overwhelmed by rain, how for nearly a block, residents can’t get in or out.
“I can call Commonfields, everybody,” Fuse said, “but no one ever comes out.”
His neighbor, Sharon Smith, 58, says spots of black mold in their bedroom are so bad that she and her husband can’t stand the dust. “Me and my baby sleep on the couch,” she said.
A few blocks away on 62nd Street, one can see spots of mold dotting the white siding belonging to Sheila Gladney, 69.
Gladney grew up in her home and has lived there with her husband and brother-in-law since 2012.
Before 1987, most Centreville residents relied on cesspools and septic tanks for sanitation. The city joined with neighboring Alorton to use state grants to have a sewer system built that year. The system placed all of the homes in Alorton and about two-thirds of the homes in Centreville within 100 feet of a sewer line.
In 2002, the city announced a sewer project using federal and state grants to connect nearly all of the remaining homes. Residents were responsible for installing pipes from their homes to the sewer line, and the poorest would receive financial assistance.
When Gladney received a home improvement grant in 2016 to fix her roof, workers told her that her home was not fully connected to the city’s sewer system, she said. They dug into her backyard and fixed it. When asked by a reporter where her wastewater was going, Gladney said, “I have no idea. I’d like to know.”
In heavy rain, water fills Gladney’s block and basement, which is crumbling and cracking. Three times, she and her family have had to be rescued by boats, she said.
The last time was nearly two years ago, when her husband had lost his right toe to diabetes and the wound was healing from an infection. Gladney tried to wrap his foot in garbage bags. “That water was nasty to walk through to get in the boat,” she said.
His toe got reinfected. Last summer his lower leg was amputated.
Nelson coordinated preliminary water testing for residents last summer, and Gladney said she learned her drinking and standing water in her basement could be unsafe. Illinois American flushed the lines, she said, “but I still don’t trust it.”
Living with fish William McNeal, 68, lives on 82nd next to the LeFlores, with the stream of bubbling wastewater between their homes.
“How is my house going to be OK with raw sewage running down by my house?” McNeal said. “They shouldn’t do nobody like that. That’s been going on for the longest, but they let that go on.”
Like others, he called to complain and only receive empty promises to fix things. “It made me just give up and stop doing anything. It’s not gonna make no difference.”
He’s lived in his house for 43 years, he said, and never seen the stormwater trenches maintained.
“If you get a good midday rain, my yard is flooded,” McNeal said. “When the water do come, it just sits. It just sits under my house.” (He doesn’t have a basement.)
Three years ago, the closet floor under McNeal’s furnace and hot water tank collapsed. He left the crumpled metal, with piles of canned food caved in around it. His roof and ceilings are collapsing. His floors are buckling.
He has replaced his roof, floors and pipes under his home three times already over the past 15 years, he said. He can’t do it again.
McNeal worked nearly 30 years operating cranes and other heavy equipment but has little saved because of hospital bills. The youngest of his four children, whose pictures cover the walls, battled bone cancer as a preschooler. His wife lost both her legs to diabetes. She died from breast cancer in 2005, when he says he broke down and had trouble working.
He uses space heaters and buckets of water to wash dishes. He remarried two years ago and showers at his wife’s house. He still stays at his home because his wife, much younger with children, has a full house.
“No, I’m not going to abandon my house,” McNeal said. “It’s all I got.”
Walter Byrd, who lives at the end of 80th Street, knows all about flooding. He said whenever it’s warm and there are a few days of heavy rain — which is about twice a year — the water gets so high on his property that carp from a nearby creek swim next to his house.
“We had big carp fish out there, eating all the waste,” Byrd said. “Fish be all out in that field out there. It be so many of them.”
The water mixes with wastewater that overflows from the manholes and residents’ cleanouts, he said. It sits in the ground long after it stops raining, he said, like quicksand. It reminds him of growing up in Mississippi.
“Down South, we had hogs. When you come out here in the summer time, it smells like a hog farm,” Byrd said. “That smell is a monster.”
The mosquitoes, he said, are numerous and large, with bites that burn.
Byrd and his wife moved to Centreville 25 years ago. He bought a two-bedroom house and, using his building skills, turned it into a seven-bedroom, two-story. “We chose the area because it was quiet,” Byrd said. “The kids were younger, in school. It was a nice area to bring the kids up.”
His flooding problems started around 2003, he said. He’s had to jack up his house from the crawl space underneath. He moved his furnace upstairs, rerouted duct work and replaced three air-conditioners.
As a plumber, he installed his own cleanout pipe and check valves. He helps neighbors when their pipes back up or heat doesn’t work. In the spring, instead of raking leaves, Byrd rakes up toilet paper from his yard to burn.
Over the past nine years, he’s had two heart attacks.
“Can you imagine bringing your family up in waste?” he said. “After working all your life, you gotta live up in it? Retire in it?”
He gets angry when he talks about the excuses he gets for the problems, the empty promises to send someone out.
“Are you gonna raise a daughter and son in this (expletive)?” Byrd said. “I wish I could go drop it in their plate and see how they like it.”
‘You can’t keep up’ Patricia Greenwood said her neighborhood used to be called Piat Orchard. “The white people had a lot of fruit trees,” she said.
She feels like problems started after the Great Flood of 1993, when water came through her floors. “But every time it comes, it gets worse and worse,” she said.
Puddles outside never go away. Strange red bugs have destroyed their yard. Dark spots have appeared in the carpet of a bedroom. Their windows are constantly foggy with condensation.
Her husband, Lonnie, had a five-way heart bypass surgery last spring. Soon after, he was pulling up their bathroom floor trying to figure out why brown water was coming out of their tub faucet and toilet.
Preliminary water testing from the summer also showed her drinking water could be unsafe, she said. An Illinois American worker and state official tested it and told her the water just needed more chlorine. Her family still refuses to use it to drink or cook.
“I wouldn’t let a dog drink this water,” Lonnie Greenwood said. “We’re buying all this water and trying to make home repairs. You can’t keep up.”
Allene “Mother” Hopkins, 78, is in a wheelchair and can’t walk. She lives alone in a home on 69th Street. Someone comes to help her cook and clean.
When it rains, Hopkins keeps watch out the window and gives updates to her children calling to check on her. She gets scared when it rains, she said, because the water gets so high and she can’t swim.
Her children let her stay with them, but she wants to return to her house. It is accessible for her wheelchair, and she loves her home.
The house was her lifesaver in 1977, when she was living with her 10 children in public housing in East St. Louis. Her mother, living next door, developed Alzheimer’s disease. The complex would not allow them to move in together, Hopkins said, so she found the house in Centreville to save her mom from going to a nursing home.
The house was abandoned, with broken windows and no furnace. It needed a roof and siding. When the community learned of her children sleeping in beds on the floor, they pitched in to fix her house.
Mother Hopkins’ house was known as a safe haven. Her children had a reputation for being respectful and well-behaved.
“I’m thankful for who I raised here. People would say, ‘Them Hopkins kids,’” she said. “It’s really awesome the Lord blessed me with this house.”
Residents say they love their neighbors. They feel safe in Centreville. They like the police.
They just want a clean neighborhood, they say, and a house they can be proud of.
“That’s the main issue,” said Vittorio Blaylock, 65. “Get this water off of us.”
Blaylock bought his home 20 years ago for $10,000 with money had saved from working 35 years at a Pillsbury flour mill in St. Louis. The two-bedroom house was just a shell, with no windows or a furnace. He’s spent over $40,000 to get a new roof, floors, plumbing, insulation, closed-in porch and driveway. He spread tons of dirt and lime to fill in land surrounding his property — where he has a corral for his horse and raises rabbits and chickens.
Last year, Blaylock got a letter from the tax assessor. “They assessed the house at $6,000,” he said. “That’s all it’s worth to them.”
Leading the way
At the first Centreville City Council meeting in February, residents filled the chairs lining the walls of the small chamber at City Hall to pressure city officials.
Louise Brown, 74, skipped Bible study to attend the meeting. Potholes on her street have gotten bigger, and water sits in them, she said, “and that water stinks.” She’s worried about her grandchildren playing in it.
“I’ve been here 50 years, and Kathryn Street ain’t never looked like that before,” Brown told the council.
About 10 residents attended the meeting that night. Since Nelson and Jackson started talking to residents last year, many have been inspired to attend public meetings and make calls.
In August, the two attorneys sent out flyers and organized a community meeting to learn more about the extent of the flooding problems. But it’s been important to them to let residents lead the way, they said.
The residents decided to meet two nights a month at a church. They sent a letter to the mayor. They are putting together a list of specific health and safety concerns and collecting signatures on a petition asking for help. They are sending it to various county and state health and public agencies as well as elected state officials.
A representative from U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s office recently came to one meeting. Later, in an email, the Illinois Democrat said she is trying to get federal agencies involved. “The people of Centreville have been overlooked for far too long, and what’s happening to this community is unacceptable. … No one deserves to live with public health concerns in their backyard.”
Kim Biggs, public information officer with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, said in an email that officials are still working to get a full understanding of the residents’ concerns.
“The IEPA has met with local groups as well as local officials and is currently working with state and federal partners to determine what future steps can be taken to alleviate the environmental concerns,” Biggs stated.
Nelson and Jackson are seeking help wherever they can. They got Harvard University graduate students to create an information packet. Students at Williams College in Massachusetts and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville tested samples of surface and drinking water. They sought the expertise of Earthjustice, a national nonprofit environmental law organization. And they are working with the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis to get bottled water to residents.
“We are trying to hold entities accountable while also giving residents relief in the interim,” Nelson said.
They are currently assisting about 55 families in Centreville and are exploring options for legal action, they said.
Mayor Jackson says he’s trying to do what he can with the city’s small annual budget of $2.3 million.
“I’d love to be able to write a check to get the streets paved and new sewers,” said Jackson, who grew up in on the south side of the city with fewer issues.
City workers last year dug trenches deeper in the worst spots along Belleview and 82nd streets. They replaced some clogged metal culverts with PVC pipes. They also cleared some of the forest behind houses on Belleview where the canal is supposed to be.
The much smaller PVC replacements, however, are clogged again in spots. Trenches are always full and dirty. Much more of the forest needs to be cleared and dug in order to reestablish the canal, which would improve water flow out of city and into surrounding Harding Ditch canal and Frank Holten lakes.
At the City Council meeting, the mayor promised residents that when spring comes, potholes will be filled and trenches will be cleared. He hopes to partner with another city or agency with the necessary large equipment to clear out the excess vegetation.
After the meeting, he told the Post-Dispatch that “stuff we are doing is a Band-Aid to what really needs to take place.”
On the March ballot, voters in Centreville and neighboring Alorton — with a population of about 1,900 — will decide whether to combine the towns in a first-ever such effort in the state. If successful, officials will seek to include Cahokia, with just over 14,000 people, on the November ballot.
The cities’ officials argue the move would save taxpayer dollars and make the area more competitive in winning grant dollars.
Centreville relies on the federal government to pay for major improvements, Jackson said, but the grants are either too small or stipulated for other types of projects. The city recently won a $50,000 grant, he said, just enough to replace one of the city’s sewer pumps.
He said he’s unsure why the city maintains 10 pumps, while Commonfields maintains the rest. He’s also unsure why the canal and trenches were never maintained, but says it’s likely for lack of money and equipment. “No one ever touched it,” he said, “and now my administration is dealing with that.”
Byrd, the resident who first got the lawyers’ attention about the sewer problems, showed up to complain at the Commonfields board of directors meeting this month. He was angry because flooding from January rain clogged his cleanout, forcing him to cut open plumbing and let waste spill out the side of his house.
Traiteur, the Commonfields superintendent, explained that the system’s 28 pumps in Centreville, Alorton and Cahokia can’t work at full capacity because of the backup in East St. Louis’ system. Water in the ground also infiltrates the pipes through cracks. The demand often causes pumps to break.
“If I had somewhere for it to be pumped, it would be pumped,” Traiteur said. “If I had some place for it to go, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Byrd was not satisfied. “Why you keep putting money in these pumps? Bind your money together and get this taken care of,” he said. “Why can’t you get together and get this done?”
Traiteur seemed resigned. “All I can do is call and ask them to give us some relief,” he said.
Resident Mike Johnson, 68, a pastor who lives on 73rd Street, said he supposes people think they should just accept it and keep quiet, take it on the chin.
People don’t realize, Johnson said, the toll it all takes — not being able to flush your toilet, embarrassment when friends visit, the constant smell, the dirt and rust on your car, watching where you step when you walk, having all the money you’ve invested in your house disappear, feeling trapped, feeling like you let down your family, trying to encourage your children to see a bright future.
“It’s just not right,” he said, “Just natural things people take for granted, you can’t enjoy those things.”
What helps is knowing that people are trying to help.
“Sometimes you can look and say, ‘Oh, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.’ That will make the hardships seem worth it,” Johnson said. “But with this situation here, it seems like there is no light. It almost takes your hope away from you.”