I could probably convince a lot of people that the photo above was taken “at the bottom of the hill” in St. Clair County, where the bluffs come down to the floodplains that stretch to the Mississippi. But this is actually East Peoria, where the bluffs and floodplains are on the east side of the Illinois River, opposite Peoria.
East Peoria is an interesting comparison with East St. Louis, and really any community that grew up on the opposite side of a major river from a large urban core. Both were dominated by heavy industry, but unlike East St. Louis which lost all of its industrial base in the Twentieth Century, East Peoria is still the center of one of the most important corporations in the world: Caterpillar. Yes, that Caterpillar, the one that builds all of the earthmovers, bulldozers and backhoes you see all over the place.
There’s a quaint little downtown, with the church you see above, but the real center of the town is under an overpass, in one of the most surreal places in the United States. First you pass through acre upon acre of redevelopment filled with big box stores, where there were once dozens of Caterpillar warehouses and yards. As successful as Caterpillar still is, it does not have the volume it once did, and as a multinational, it builds more of its products overseas. Suburban “lifestyle centers” have replaced much of its old physical plant.
But there’s still plenty left of American industrial might, with giant buildings with evocative names such as Building KK and LL. It’s not like the old days when St. Louis brewery owners labeled their stock houses and malt kilns, I suppose.
Here is Building KK, so large and devoid of scale comparison it’s hard to grasp just how huge it actually is.
But here are some of the old worker’s houses, which consist of about six or seven blocks, all completely surrounded by leviathan Caterpillar buildings.
Here is Building LL along Cass Street.
I doubt many Caterpillar workers still live around the plant.
But I could see back around World War II hundreds of men streaming down these streets into the factories building tractors and tanks for the war effort.
You can see some more of the foundries and factories from the Cedar Street Bridge.