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Belleville’s mom-and-pop Main Street ponders place in national tragedy

Main Street in Belleville is filled with local businesses. The township government has been eliminated and its duties taken over by the city.| Sam Charles/Sun-Times

BELLEVILLE, Ill. — In the days after a shooting rampage put an unwanted spotlight on the area, a semblance of normalcy returned to the St. Clair County Building.

One clerk’s office employee bemoaned the “bedlam” he saw just hours earlier, with journalists from across the country mobbing the municipal building’s court records office.

Belleville, a town of about 42,000, was thrust into the national focus after authorities said James T. Hodgkinson, who lived just outside town, was the man who shot five people — including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., — as they practiced on a baseball field in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday morning. Police fatally shot Hodgkinson.

Dozens of journalists flocked to the St. Louis suburb, camping outside Hodgkinson’s home.

The shooting appeared to be politically motivated; Hodgkinson frequently criticized President Donald Trump and other Republicans on social media.

James Hodgkinson of Belleville protests outside of the U.S. Post Office in Downtown Belleville in 2012. | Derik Holtmann/Bellville News -Democrat

Hodgkinson volunteered on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and, for a time, kept a Sanders sign on his front lawn.

St. Clair County voting records show Hodgkinson was far from alone in his support for Sanders.

In the 2016 Democratic Party primary, Sanders received 14,676 votes, according to the St. Clair County clerk’s office, while Hillary Clinton carried the county, with 17,251 votes out of 32,315 cast.

Trump narrowly claimed victory in the Republican primary, with 11,637 votes, just ahead of the 10,523 cast for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. In all, 28,459 votes were cast in that primary.

Clinton carried St. Clair County in the general election, with 60,756 of the nearly 123,000 votes cast; Trump received 53,857 votes.

It was one of just five counties in the state outside of the Chicago area that went for Clinton.

Martín Nolivos Salazar came to the Belleville area four years ago and is a student at the Belleville campus of Lindenwood University.

Salazar, a native of Ecuador, works at the Pour @ 322 coffee shop on Belleville’s Main Street. He said a sense of community is common throughout the area, which, he added, seems to be becoming more of a destination.

“It’s really nice,” he said. “I’ve also seen more people come to the city, to Belleville, just to check around.”

Pour @ 322 is one of dozens of independently owned business that dot Main Street, also home to lumber companies, florists, a travel agency and a dance studio.

“The heart of Belleville is all small mom-and-pop shops,” said Wendy Pfeil, executive director of the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce.

She added that the town has an up-and-coming microbrewery community and barbecue restaurants that compete on the national level.

Manufacturing in the area, though, took a hit around 2010 and has yet to fully recover — fertile ground for both Sanders and Trump.

Records from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show 22 percent of manufacturing jobs in the St. Louis region — which includes Belleville — were lost in just over three years.

In December 2007, about 136,000 in the region were employed in the manufacturing sector, records show. That number had fallen to about 106,000 by January 2010.

While not as robust as it was 10 years ago, manufacturing in the area currently employs about 115,000 people.

Among the goods produced in the Belleville area are medical equipment, flooring equipment, military boots and gas stoves, she added.

Just over 18 percent of Belleville’s population lives below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is just under 4 percent.

Beyond Belleville’s downtown, homes vary from modest to stately, with many newly built estates adjacent to older ones, some in disrepair with chipping paint.

Law enforcement personnel enter the home of James T. Hodgkinson near Belleville on Wednesday. | Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

The median home value is just under $100,000, according to Census data. The median household income is $43,318.

Hodgkinson’s income dried up earlier this year, as his 23-year-old home inspection business went under, records show.

It was not the first major loss to befall he and his wife.

Since 1996, records show, two girls who were in the care of James and Suzanne Hodgkinson have died — one taking her own life and another dying of a drug overdose. Earlier this year, James Hodgkinson’s home inspection business was voluntarily dissolved, and he sold his tools and work truck.

While Hodgkinson’s politics appear to have ultimately consumed him, his neighbors said he rarely brought up his views in conversation.

Back outside of town Thursday afternoon, Hodgkinson’s wife, Suzanne Hodgkinson, took questions from reporters.

“I had no idea this was going to happen, and I don’t know what to say about it. I can’t wrap my head around it,” she said.

Suzanne Hodgkinson also said she wished the journalists who came to town would leave.

Wednesday’s shooting was not the first Washington, D.C.-area shooting carried out by someone from Southern Illinois.

In 1998, Russell Weston of Valmeyer killed two U.S. Capitol police officers and wounded a tourist in a shooting at the U.S. Capitol.

Some in Valmeyer, about 28 miles southwest of Belleville, remembered the media attention foisted on the village of 1,200.

Valmeyer Clerk Laurie Brown recalled in the immediate aftermath of the 1998 shooting, “all the news people trying to find people who knew him.”

Suzanne Hodgkinson talks to reporters about her husband, James Hodgkinson. With her is St. Clair County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Richard Wagner. | Kaley Johnson/Belleville News-Democrat, distributed by the Associated Press