A post-Roe surge could reshape this Illinois steel mill town

Granite City, a conservative-leaning community near St. Louis, now offers the closest abortion clinics for many patients across the South and Midwest

The U.S. Steel Corp. Granite City Works plant in Granite City, Ill. The town could begin to see an increase in visitors from neighboring states seeking abortion care.
The U.S. Steel Corp. Granite City Works plant in Granite City, Ill. The town could begin to see an increase in visitors from neighboring states seeking abortion care. (Whitney Curtis/For The Washington Post)

GRANITE CITY, Ill. — The executive director of the chamber of commerce has tried to revive the image of the steel mill town where she has spent every one of her 82 years: Granite City isn’t dirty, she’ll tell anyone who asks, it’s industrial. Its residents aren’t down-and-out, but working hard to get back on track.

In the newsletter she writes once a month, Rosemarie Brown urged Granite City residents to reject “those unpleasant labels that neighboring communities have placed on us.” She hosted a barbecue dinner to celebrate local business owners. For the chamber’s black-tie event, she made centerpieces out of hunks of raw coal from the mill, tying them together with a shiny orange bow.

Then came news from Washington that could saddle Brown’s city with an entirely different reputation.

The Supreme Court’s decision last month to overturn Roe v. Wade suddenly left Granite City and other communities in southern Illinois as home to the closest abortion clinics for women hundreds of miles away. At the bottom of a long blue state that dips into red America, where many states across the South and Midwest have banned abortion, the region is now poised to become an island of abortion access, with as many as 14,000 people expected to come for abortions this year. Although the area leans conservative, Illinois’ government is led by Democrats elected by more densely populated regions upstate.

As soon as Brown heard about the Supreme Court decision, alone in her office, she started to cry.

With abortion patients pouring in from all over the country, the ruling could usher in a new industry and infuse much-needed cash into the city, where 46 businesses have closed since a round of steel mill layoffs in 2015. But some in Granite City — which backed former president Trump in 2020 — are not comfortable hitching their economic fortunes to a practice many see as immoral.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to our city,” Brown said.

Change is likely to come fast. The Hope Clinic for Women, which has operated in Granite City since 1974, experienced a threefold spike in calls on the day of the ruling. To meet demand, the clinic plans to hire at least five new staff members and extend its schedule, adding nighttime hours and an additional day of abortion care each week, according to co-owner Chelsea Souder.

New facilities are also popping up to help the region’s two existing abortion clinics — Hope Clinic and a Planned Parenthood in Fairview Heights, Ill. — absorb out-of-state patients. Soon, at least two clinics that were forced to shutter in antiabortion states will reopen in southern Illinois, including one owned by Alan Braid, the doctor who defied a Texas abortion ban last fall.

Texas abortion provider Alan Braid will reopen clinics in Ill., N.M.

Unlike a lot of her friends and family, Brown opposed the overturning of Roe v. Wade. A decision like this would just bring more division, she thought to herself — to the whole country, and especially to her beloved hometown.

Brown contemplated what she might write in her next newsletter, which would go out to business owners throughout the county. On one hand, she thought, the surge of abortion patients might bring back some of the businesses that had closed. On the other, did they really want to be known as the city where women went to end their pregnancies?

She sat at her computer — manicured pink nails on the keyboard, her honey-blonde bob blow-dried two inches high — for almost an hour.

“There’s no way we’ll be able to run away from this,” she said.

Sixty years ago, many saw Granite City as one of the country’s most desirable places to live. With the steel mills booming and the union strong, the city’s factory workers took home hefty salaries while their children attended some of the state’s top public schools.

Locals could go to the theater for a double matinee on a Sunday, or stop by the counter at the drugstore for what was rumored to be the best fountain cherry Coke anywhere in the world.

In 1958, the National Civic League declared Granite an “All-American City.”

“That meant it was a great place to live,” said Brown.

Asked when things started to change, several longtime residents singled out the early 1970s: When one of the largest steel mills closed — and the Hope Clinic for Women came to town.

Since then, the population has declined from more than 40,000 to about 27,000.

“Nobody wants to live in the valley of death, really — and that’s what it is,” said Mark Yehling, 78, a former agent at the unemployment office who moved here in 1971 and now regularly joins the near-constant crowd of demonstrators outside the clinic.

You just have to look at the area around the clinic to know it’s true, said Joan Kane, an antiabortion activist who recently moved from southern Illinois across the river to St. Louis.

In the shadow of the steel mill, which towers over the clinic, many of the houses in downtown Granite City are boarded up with red signs on the doors, awaiting demolition. A few blocks over, long lines of store fronts sit empty, dotted with a few open tattoo parlors and rent-to-own appliance stores.

“It’s like evil has been there for so long,” said Kane. “Death just keeps destroying everything that it touches.”

Brown has heard these theories blaming the clinic for the city’s decline — and she isn’t buying them.

“I find that very hard to believe,” she said, sitting in her office at the chamber of commerce. The city’s fortunes are tied to the mills, she added.

Granite City is a longtime Democratic blue-collar town that threw its support behind Trump. The former president visited the steel mill in 2018, touting the tariffs he imposed on steel and aluminum from foreign countries, which, according to the mill, helped bring approximately 800 people here back to work.

Inside the plan to create an abortion refuge for a post-Roe era

People in Granite City usually don’t focus on the clinic unless they have to. When the subject comes up, there’s nervous laughter. Long pauses. Eventually, someone changes the subject.

When the clinic asked to build a four-foot fence around its property in the fall of 2020, to minimize contact between patients and the protesters, the city council turned down the proposal, without any members voicing an opinion on the matter before they took a vote.

City officials seem to prefer avoiding the topic altogether.

Mayor Michael Parkinson, who was elected last year, did not respond to requests for comment on this story. Nor did nine of Granite City’s 10 city council members.

“That place needs to leave,” said city council member and longtime Granite City resident Bob Pickerell, referring to the abortion clinic, before he excused himself and hung up the phone.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (D), on the other hand, is eager to talk about the issue. The people of southern Illinois have an obligation to take in the thousands of women who will be turned away elsewhere, he told The Washington Post, whatever their personal views on abortion.

“I understand there are people who may be opposed to providing abortions or becoming known for having a clinic,” he said. “But frankly this is an emergency.”

At Hope Clinic, Souder said the leadership team has been working hard to build relationships with local officials since she and two others bought the business in May. Souder said owners have met with elected officials, the police chief, and nearby businesses to discuss the influx of abortion patients.

While Hope Clinic has attracted out-of-state patients for decades — restrictive laws in Missouri, in particular, led many to make the short drive across the river — this surge will be unlike anything the facility has ever seen.

“We want to make sure people are on the same page and prepared for what’s coming,” Souder said — “and how much change this means for Granite City.”

In the meetings with officials, she said, no one talks about how they feel about abortion.

“What we owe people, if anything, is to make sure we have systems and processes and relationships in place to keep everyone safe.”

Beyond that, she said, the clinic just needs to do its work.

The Supreme Court decision has forced many in Granite City to reckon with abortion and the role it plays in their region.

“Today we are especially reminded that in our land, Roe was overturned this week,” said Pastor Alan Beuster as he addressed his parish at Hope Lutheran Church on the last Sunday in June. “Within our own state, however, the battle continues to rage mightily.”

For years, the pastor has been a regular among the antiabortion demonstrators outside the clinic, handing out pamphlets and encouraging women to make a different choice.

“Lord in your mercy,” he said.

“Hear our prayer,” his 50 parishioners answered back.

Beuster moved to Granite City eight years ago — and he feels like God placed him here for precisely this moment, to serve a community that will see far more abortions now that Roe has been reversed.

He plans to double down on his sidewalk ministry efforts, recruiting more people to gather outside the clinic in the morning. His church buys baby wipes and bibles for women who may be considering abortion, which he helps to distribute outside of the clinic.

While the surge in abortion patients might bring more jobs to Granite City, Beuster acknowledged, there would be consequences for welcoming that kind of industry.

By relying on business from the clinic, he said, the city would be “going against God’s word.”

“And there is a day of reckoning for that,” he said.

Some who own businesses in the area see things differently.

Cesar Caratachea, a devout Catholic who owns Tres Caminos, a Mexican restaurant, said he doesn’t support abortion — but he also wouldn’t judge anybody who decided to have one.

The spike in abortions will be “good business,” said Caratachea. His restaurant, just outside the Granite City limits, is right next to a cluster of hotels where Hope Clinic patients often stay.

“If my business grows, I don’t care what they come to do,” he said.

Felicia Urioste, one of the owners of the ice cream store, Mr. Twist, said she’d also welcome any new customers. A cinder block roadside stand with a red roof, Mr. Twist has been an institution in Granite City for 45 years, famous for its strawberry cheesecake sundae, with whipped cream, chopped nuts and a cherry on top.

“I don’t judge anybody who comes and buys ice cream,” she said, adding that the community is divided on the issue and that as a business owner whatever she says “could make me or break me.”

All over town, people approached the subject with apprehension. A few miles down the road from Mr. Twist, a group of eight women gathered at the Granite City senior center for pinochle, the card game they played every Wednesday at noon.

They kept score with a blue ballpoint pen, cards in hand, bantering back and forth about who was winning and the best movies they’d seen.

Asked about the abortion clinic, they all went quiet.

“It’s almost too controversial to talk about,” said Gail, an 87-year-old who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used, concerned she might be attacked for her views on abortion.

“I’m a woman,” she said, tentatively. “I’m on the side of women. Each woman has to make her own decision.”

“You know they’re killing children, babies,” said Gail’s longtime friend, Betty Homyer, 82.

“Illinois is going down the tubes,” Homyer added. “We’re turning into — what do you call it when all the illegals come over? A sanctuary state … for abortions.”

“It’s very complicated,” one of the others whispered.

Some of the women gathered around the card table had known each other for decades.

This was the first time they’d ever talked about abortion.

At the bar behind the abortion clinic, the clientele mainly sticks to two topics of conversation.

“They’re either talking about sports or the weather,” said Robin Will, who owns Ken’s Lounge.

Her customers all know they’re right next to the clinic, she added — but no one seems to care.

Ken’s Lounge has been around for 50 years, opening every day at 6 a.m. so anyone on the overnight shift at the mill can grab a beer after work. Will screens every Cardinals game, and serves up vats of pulled pork and potato salad whenever one of her regulars retires. If someone starts to mouth off, Will said, she tells them to take it somewhere else.

“If you act up,” she likes to say, “I’ll call your mom because she’s been a regular here for 30 years.”

When Will bought the bar a few years ago, she said she didn’t think twice about her new neighbor, which she sees as “just another business.” Raised as a Democrat, Will has always believed women should be able to do what they want with their bodies.

Sometimes men will wander in alone for a few hours in the middle of the day, Will said. She always knows they’re waiting on someone at the clinic because they keep a close eye on the clock.

Whenever this happens, she said, she’ll ask the guy’s name and where he’s from — then introduce him to the other guys at the bar.

She wants to make sure he feels comfortable.

Around 7:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday in June, Will went to find a woman she knew would be eager to talk about abortion.

Tracy, a longtime Granite City resident, went to the Hope Clinic at age 15. She said she was raped as a freshman in high school.

If she had been forced to carry her pregnancy to term, “I would have been mentally destroyed,” said Tracy, who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used because of the sensitivity of her story.

“I would have looked at that child every day and it would have reminded me of something horrible.”

To Tracy, all this talk about the clinic bringing a bad reputation to Granite City didn’t make any sense. Thousands of women will be coming here for the care they desperately need, she said — care they’re now unable to get anywhere else.

Granite City would be a place they’d remember for the rest of their lives, she said: not as a valley of death, but a “sign of hope.”

One week after the Supreme Court decision, Brown was still wrestling with what she should write in the chamber’s monthly newsletter.

She thought back to the last time the community was the focus of a story in a national newspaper. The headline she remembered was, “Dirty, Gritty Granite City.”

Brown had immediately written a letter to the editor, kindly suggesting they might have been a little more sensitive. If they’d really gotten to know the people here, she wrote, they would have settled on a different set of adjectives.

She worried the city would get the same kind of negative coverage once abortion patients started pouring in. If only people could focus on the women who would be helped here, she thought to herself. But she wasn’t particularly optimistic.

“We as a society see the negative before we see the positive,” she said.

“They’ll see the abortion side of it first, not that it might be giving hope to people.”

Lately Brown had been thinking she might not mention the ruling in her newsletter at all: Let business owners make up their own minds about what it meant for their city.

In the meantime, women would come and stay and eat and fill up their cars with gas.

And if that helped Granite City, even a little bit, she would be glad.

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.

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