Across the Mississippi, a city left behind by the Clinton boom

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The Independent US

In his battered blue Buick, Frank Yarborough is cruising the near-deserted streets of downtown East St Louis playing one of his "dope tapes" through the loud hailer that dangles where a wing mirror should be. The car is barely rolling; it is raining hard and Frank, 74, is simultaneously eating scrambled eggs on toast from a plastic container.

In his battered blue Buick, Frank Yarborough is cruising the near-deserted streets of downtown East St Louis playing one of his "dope tapes" through the loud hailer that dangles where a wing mirror should be. The car is barely rolling; it is raining hard and Frank, 74, is simultaneously eating scrambled eggs on toast from a plastic container.

When he turns up the sound, Frank's voice can be heard through walls. "Look at you. You are teaching our children how to use dope, how to sell dope, you're using them to lie, to cheat, to steal. You're using the very children you're supposed to be protecting. Jesus told me to tell you to stop destroying the children."

Sometimes he gets out of the car and preaches from a motorised scooter. (He lost a leg recently to a blood clot.)

The Rev Frank Yarborough of the Call Out Evangelist Church, to give him his proper title, does this daily from dawn until dusk, noisily scolding the citizenry for forsaking righteousness. He even has a permit for it from the city. (He has it stuffed behind a sun visor.) Today, he has plans to stop at a local high school, where dealers will be waiting to catch the children coming out. Later he will visit a housing project.

Anywhere else in America, Frank would surely be banned. He would give Mayor Giuliani of New York paroxysms. But this is East St Louis. President Lyndon Johnson called it the most miserable city in America more than three decades ago, and little has changed.

A year ago, President Clinton came here also promising to help. In the middle of what he called a "poverty tour" of the most benighted spots in America, he stood before a huge and excited crowd in a parking lot on State Street, the city's main avenue. He chose the location because a branch of Walgreen's, a national pharmacy chain, had just opened there - the closest thing the city had seen to economic development in decades.

Twelve months on, as his Vice-President, Al Gore, is touting America's economic boom as a reason for voters to elect him, Mr Clinton has let the city down (with help from the Republican-run Congress). Nothing new has come the city's way from the federal government. If America as a whole is prospering, the impact here has been negligible. About 40 per cent of the households here are living below the official poverty line, set at $16,600 for a family of four. It is 99 per cent black, thanks to a white exodus that happened in the early Sixties, and single mothers head four out of five homes.

"East St Louis has been passed by," said Ken Warren, a professor of political science at the St Louis University, just across the Mississippi river in St Louis proper, which, while not without problems itself, is surrounded by wealthy, mostly white, suburbs. (The river divides Illinois, where East St Louis lies, from Missouri.) "It really is a sad commentary on America, when you have such affluence just a few miles away."

Among those who went to Walgreen's to hear Mr Clinton last year was Clarence Ellis, a retired teacher who now runs a small childcare centre. He was in the shop one afternoon last week on an errand for his wife. "The President was here about two and a half hours, I guess," he said, pointing to where he stood. "He was talking about all the things he was going to bring here. But I don't see it. All talk and no action."

A few will never give upon East St Louis. "I will die here," Mr Ellis pledges. So, surely, will Mr Yarborough - perhaps on one of his late-night forays into the housing projects to berate drugs dealers? "They tell me every day they are going to kill me," he said. "But I tell them they are lying. Because I walk in the Spirit."

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