Tucked below the Merchants Bridge approach, abutting the present-day levee, and hidden under mounds of coal and salt, once stood the town of Old Venice. Known more recently as Kerr Island (after its prior status as an unattached island), this area was home in the early twentieth century to a dense settlement of African American families who built a makeshift community outside of the racially discriminatory boundaries of neighboring “sundown towns.” Describing the improvised landscape of this area in the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers’ Project Illinois Guide writes that, while Kerr Island was inhabited by fishermen in the past, “it has become attached to the mainland and been taken over as the dwelling place of more than a thousand Negro squatters. The settlement has evolved without restraint or direction. Crazy streets thread their way among hundreds of huts that are built of scraps of lumber, tin, and a variety of material salvaged from river and alley.” While small remnants of this settlement existed until the 1980s, it has been systematically erased and is now covered by the sprawling debris of a nearby riverside coal terminal.

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