Piles of garbage choke streets, drug deals and murders are common, housing projects have been flooded with raw sewage and weed-infested vacant lots checker the city.

East St. Louis is a $47 million sinkhole, a city so burdened by debt that some of its police cars lack tail lights and City Hall was sold to pay a court judgment.To Mike Riddle, it's a place where houses fall down and nothing comes back up.

"When they tear down a house, they don't put another one up, and the weeds just take over. It's just rundown," said Riddle, a school custodian and longtime resident.

To Sandra Woods, it's a place so rough that cabbies won't come when called, fear of crime makes for sleepless nights and her grandchildren wait in the rain for school buses that don't run on time.

"It's pitiful," she said.

East St. Louis once was bustling with chemical, metal and glass works. But labor troubles, crime and corruption in the 1960s led to white flight. The population was 82,000 in 1960, but has shrunk to 40,000. Today, the city is virtually all black.

The city's 63 slayings in 1989 gave it the highest per-capita murder rate in the FBI's national rankings, and police say they are overwhelmed by drug-related crime. Residents talk about their fears of gang fights and drive-by shootings.

Last year, East St. Louis' crumbling sewers flooded a school and a housing project with raw sewage. The city in January was convicted of reckless conduct for endangering police officers by failing to outfit squad cars with working radios, head and tail lights and other basics.

East St. Louis has so little money that a judge awarded its $6 million City Hall building as a damage payment to a man who was beaten in the city jail by another inmate.

In the poorest parts of town, drivers inch cars between 3-foot-high piles of trash that squeeze streets to one lane. Two years ago, the city stopped picking up garbage, and people can't pay anyone else to do it.

Burned and abandoned downtown buildings are left to rot and fall, within sight of the skyscrapers and Gateway Arch of more prosperous St. Louis across the Mississippi River.