Pembroke Township: Mired In Poverty, Now Devastated By Tornadoes, With No Help In Sight


The unfathomable depth of the poverty in Pembroke Township, Illinois has been the subject of ten years of sporadic national media attention. Those years have brought flashy press conferences, failed government initiatives and little change.

Now, it seems the township will be passed over once again: after a devastating tornado ripped through the area last Saturday, Pembroke was not declared a "state disaster area" like so many other towns in central Illinois.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn told The Daily Journal that Kankakee County hadn't made a request on Pembroke's behalf. And County Board Chairman Mike Bossert said that the damage "might not rise to the level required to make that designation."

This kind of buck-passing and speculative half-commitment from the government is nothing new for Pembroke Township.

An hour's drive south of Chicago, the mostly-black village officially has around 3,000 residents, though the town's preacher and doctor speculate that another 2,000 people live in the nearby woods, where census takers never go.

The Chicago Tribune reports that in the area, the average household income is around $14,000, compared with over $50,000 nationwide. In Pembroke, 98 percent of school children qualify for free lunches. Few have running water. Car tires are placed on top of roofs to keep them from blowing away in the wind. Residents burn old car batteries for warmth in the winter.

There is no bank, supermarket, police force, pharmacy, barber shop or gas station in Pembroke, or neighboring Hopkins Park; residents have to travel five miles to nearby St. Anne, over unsteady gravel and dirt roads, to find these things.

In 2000, a People magazine profile put the town's poverty in the spotlight. The article described the efforts of Chicago businessman Sal Dimiceli, who had spent over $1 million buying shiny new trailers and supplies for the residents of Pembroke.

But when the New York Times visited in 2002, the situation had scarcely improved:

When a Chicago philanthropist built six houses for the poor in Pembroke about three years ago, (town Reverend Jon) Dyson pleaded with him, futilely, to make the residents undergo counseling before allowing them to move in.

So Mr. Dyson was not surprised when about a year after an elderly woman had moved into one of the new modular homes, she trudged back to her old place to be with her husband, who had flat-out refused to leave their crumbling house. Nor was Mr. Dyson surprised to find the old man already stacking wood for winter.

As The Capitol Fax blog reminded readers today, former Gov. George Ryan had planned to build a women's prison in Pembroke. The development would have brought jobs, a sewer system and an all-around better infrastructure to the area. The only remnant of that project is a short stretch of flawless blacktop -- the access road to the planned construction site, now an empty clearing.

Ryan's successor, Rod Blagojevich, canceled the prison, opting instead for a showy press conference and a series of partnerships with community groups and the private sector. With virtually no state money behind the plan, it accomplished little.

Last weekend's tornado is the town's history writ small: a perfect storm of bone-crushing poverty, governmental ineptitude and downright bad luck.

Pembroke Township and its neighboring rural villages were caught completely off guard by a series of tornadoes that ravaged central Illinois on June 5.

The reason they were unprepared? Hopkins Park, which shares a small plot of land with Pembroke, had been awarded a $32,000 state grant for emergency sirens to warn residents of tornadoes. But Mayor Samuel Payton told the Tribune, "We never got the money -- the state never released a check."

Without warning, a Hopkins Park woman was suddenly trapped in debris when her mobile home collapsed on her in the winds. Fortunately, her husband was able to pull her out alive.

In Pembroke, Plass Thomas, 76, saw both of the mobile homes on his property destroyed Saturday. "A tornado lifted one and dropped it on the other where Thomas, his wife and grandson were watching television at 3000S Road in Pembroke Township," wrote The Daily Journal. "Thomas says there was no warning. 'The roof came off. One minute it was there, and then it was gone.'"

These devastated communities -- already suffering from decades of shameful neglect -- now may not even receive the modicum of support offered to declared "disaster areas."

According to a state press release, those services would include "personnel and equipment to assist with security and other public safety issues, as well as trucks, heavy equipment and work crews to speed debris removal."

Rich Miller at The Capitol Fax writes, "If the county doesn't get its act together and ask the governor to put that area on the disaster list, then the governor needs to find a way to get them some help."

"The majority white county has been notorious for neglecting Pembroke Township over the decades," Miller concludes. "It's truly shameful."

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