A promise to the Illinois town that progress forgot

Pembroke Township, mired in poverty, looks like a 19th-century relic. Can a state initiative bail it out?

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A visit to this rural area 60 miles south of Chicago is a journey back in time - but it's hardly a sentimental one.

Pembroke is one of the poorest areas in the state. More than 90 percent black, it's a pocket of the country where some residents live in shacks without electricity and running water.

"Look at that," John Howard says driving down one of township's back roads, pointing to two young girls spending a steamy afternoon in front of their dilapidated home. "That was me 50 years ago."

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Mr. Howard, who grew up here and now runs a day-care and vocational training center, next points to a ditch beside the road where he and other neighborhood children would seek relief in the mucky water. There is little else for children to do today in Pembroke.

The state has a plan to revitalize Pembroke Township: Gov. Rod Blagojevich visited last month to announce an initiative. But the plan involves little new money, relying instead on partnerships among state agencies, community groups, and the private sector to accomplish goals that include making government services more accessible, constructing affordable housing, improving the sewage and water systems, and cleaning up the old tires that dot the area.

"We can't allow any part of our state to be living in the 19th century," governor Blagojevich said.

The township's 2,800 people have a average annual income of $9,642, and more than half of households with children under 5 are below the poverty line.

Indeed, images here hark back sometimes 100 years: Two women till a field as a shirtless man rides by on a rusted tractor. Many live in mobile homes that appear ready to fall in on themselves. There are no gas lines in the area; those who can't afford propane burn old car batteries for heat in winter.

Many residents are skeptical of the state's plan."I've been here all my life and I've seen them come and go with promises," says James Taylor, who runs the local newspaper. "We have hope and faith that the governor's on the up-and-up. More hope than faith."

Tracey Scruggs, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Human Services, says she understands such doubts. "I would certainly be skeptical, too, if you look at history," she says. "But we're there for the long haul. We don't intend to pull out until the work is done."

Kent Redfield, a professor of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, gives Blagojevich credit for creativity. "There's no money for any kind of massive infrastructure project or building an industrial park," he says. "It certainly is an interesting experiment to say, let's bring all these state resources here and get better coordination."

The car Mr. Taylor's in pulls onto a flawless stretch of blacktop. "This is the nicest road around," he says. "The road to nowhere."

In fact, the road abruptly ends amid a huge clearing of overturned dirt and brush. It was built as an access road for construction vehicles working on a new women's prison. The last governor, George Ryan, visited with much fanfare to announce the project, saying it would be an economic boost for the area.

Blagojevich killed the project to save money during a time of fiscal crisis. On this afternoon, a couple of trucks sit by the roadside and the site is still except for a small mound of brush that is on fire.

"There were no blacks working on it, anyway," Taylor says. "That was a facade." Taylor believes it would be naive not to think race is a factor in Pembroke's isolation and poverty. He says whites who run all the area's big businesses benefit from the township's isolation because Pembroke residents must go elsewhere to buy gas, groceries, or even to do laundry.

Yet despite Pembroke's troubles, people display a stubborn pride. Many moved here decades ago to escape Chicago's congestion or racism in the South. Howard's mother, Louise, has been here since the early 1950s. She still believes Pembroke has potential. "Some -day, somehow ... somebody's going to take a good look at Pembroke and it's going to be a part of Illinois."

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