By Cindy Lyles
William Shakespeare rarely enters my reasoning processes, especially when contemplating my research on urban landscapes. Still, the classic line from the female protagonist of Romeo and Juliet recently crossed my mind: “What’s in a name?” Like Juliet, I agree,“…that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”
However, the rules for naming flowers and star-crossed lovers fail to translate in the case of War Zone: Destruction of an All-American City—an hour-long examination of my hometown discussed the plagues of this urban milieu. Alongside a critical view of systemic, city failures was also a sympathetic glimpse at hopeful citizens and the rarely publicized good in the city. The only thing more intriguing than these ying-yang storylines was how residents responded to them.
East St. Louisians gathered on social media sites to voice critiques on the documentary down to its name. Many felt the “war zone” label was unrepresentative. After all, this is a place where loving families live and people operate businesses, not a battleground with soldiers tossing grenades while army tanks roll pass. The alleged misnomer seemed demeaning and offensive at first glance. But, one resident vocalized why an objective second look was necessary when he posted, “War zone (–n.) 1. A combat area in which the rights of the neutrals are suspended...I think the title is quite fitting.”
The entire moniker packs major punches by conveying the history and pathology of East St. Louis in seven mere words. The city’s celebrated past—of being an All-American city in 1959—opposes its present “destruction.” Specifically, continual government corruption and negligence, corporate abandonment, violence, crimes, a struggling school system, and plummeting population add to the ruin. Likewise, such compounded predicaments strip the power and value of residents—or suspends the rights of the neutrals—as they fight to realize glimmers of glory days long passed.
This close read of the title reveals that the documentary’s title is not only candid but also representative of East St. Louis in its current state…Unfortunately Juliet, it turns out that there is a lot in a name.
Cindy Lyles is a program coordinator and contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE.