It is distressing to see Ferguson, Mo., making headlines again for demonstrations that turn violent. To outsiders, especially those who have not followed every detail of the injustices revealed by the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown by policeman Darren Wilson (who sought to question Brown in the theft of some cigarillos), the enduring protests seem senseless, even destructive. Certainly no community wants to fear its police, and no police force wants to work where they’re not wanted and feel they can’t do their job.
Yet the police-citizen standoff isn’t the main problem, it’s the resultant of problems that are too-little discussed, in spite of the enormous news coverage and pundit hand-wringing. People can’t “move on” until fundamental changes are made, and that includes reckoning with the past—neither of which has happened.
A City Obliterated
Ferguson’s anguish began to make sense to me as I stood in an empty, overgrown cul de sac and gazed across hundreds acres of earth scraped clean by massive earth movers. I was conducting interviews in St. Louis pursuant to my book, Stories Cities Tell about the Future. Those bare-earth acres, with just a few street fragments and some humble churches remaining, had once been Kinloch, a historically black suburb of St. Louis that once was home to 6,000. Now it is becoming an office park. Kinloch’s demise, over decades, was orchestrated by government, using buyouts, eminent domain, and other means, because it was to be in the path of an airport expansion (which was abandoned). The depopulation and land clearance has continued to make way for an office-park.
Where did those people go? Many moved to adjacent . . . Ferguson, which grew for decades as a whites-only suburb, as indeed most of St. Louis suburbs were, until Fair Housing laws were passed in the 1960s. The influx from Kinloch contributed over 25 years to a growing black presence in Ferguson and white flight that accelerated in spite of the fact that blacks sought in Ferguson exactly what whites did: stability, low crime, good schools, and access to jobs.
The perception that white flight was due to the black influx has rarely been challenged, but the promise of the suburbs has long been fading for Ferguson and North St. Louis county as—in a repetition of the 1970s decline of older cities—those towns saw jobs move to more affluent suburbs to the west or disappear altogether. Some whites fled because blacks moved in, but some fled shrinking opportunity and value, too. The towns’ tax base shrunk to the degree that Ferguson and its neighboring towns could no longer adequately support schools (some of which are bad enough to have been “de-certified” and therefore illegitimate), and became reliant on income from traffic tickets—overwhelmingly assessed against blacks, whose obligations rapidly multiplied, and who were often jailed if they could not afford to pay. The Ferguson unrest grew directly out of anger at making poor drivers pay to keep the city functioning.
But Kinloch is also an ingredient in the rage, as the latest chapter in a long history of African-American displacement in and around St. Louis. Robert Hansman, an artist who founded City Faces, an art program for children at the Clinton-Peabody public housing project and is a professor at Washington University, gave me a brief tour.
Parking on an empty street dotted with a few underused light-industrial buildings west of downtown St. Louis, we looked back at office towers and the Gateway Arch through the wide swatch carved by Interstate 64. The route displaced the African-American Mill Creek Valley neighborhood of 20,000. Several more African-American neighborhoods would fall to “slum clearance,” that too often left behind empty land rather than vibrant revitalized neighborhoods. Many displaced were routed to the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing development, which originally housed blacks and whites separately.
We drove north to the site of among the most disastrous projects of the urban-renewal era. Pruitt-Igoe opened in 1955 as 33 11-story apartment buildings on 57-acres. After Federal court decisions ended official segregation of public housing, whites departed rapidly as their incomes improved, since housing choices were widely available in the city and in North County towns like Ferguson. “Restrictive covenants on housing kept blacks trapped,” Hansman explained. “Then, public housing became the dumping ground for blacks displaced by slum demolition and highways.” the project, infamously mismanaged, was famously dynamited beginning in 1972. From mown-grass blocks just to the north of the development only spottily occupied by isolated groups of once-grand houses, we looked at the site of Pruitt-Igoe, which is now, improbably, a forest. The buildings were not only dynamited, but almost every sign of the project has been obliterated.
A short jaunt northwest on I-70 took us to Kinloch, to which some Pruitt-Igoe residents may have moved. Architect Andrew Raimist, who is a colleague of Hansman at Washington University’s School of Design and the Visual Arts had been hired to add to one of the churches that remained as earthmover growled around them. When he looked at the site, “I didn’t understand the purpose of the project at all,” Raimist said in an interview. “The land around the church had largely been cleared. The city had very few residents, but 20 churches.”
Though residents had been forced out, he explained, “they came back every week to go to their churches, which were crowded and thriving.” As Daffney Moore, who lives in St. Louis but travels to poverty-battered East St. Louis to worship told me, “I go to that church because I am loyal to my pastor. Black people are like that. People move; churches don’t.” (As Economic Development Director of the City of Berkeley, a small suburb west of Ferguson and north of Kinloch, Moore’s got her own stories to tell, but that’s for another blog.) Such powerful and long-held social bonds are almost never recognized when officials apply generic economic-development formulas. The remaining Kinloch churches were also slated for demolition, I was told, completing the erasure of 125 years of history. Kinloch shocks because it is urban renewal with a 1950s mindset inflicted on a community in the second decade of the 21st century.
Ferguson and Failing Suburbs
Our final stop was the Burger Bar and More, on an aging arterial strip along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson. The street has been the epicenter of protests since Michael Brown was shot nearby by officer Darren Wilson. Charles Davis bantered with Hansman as he served customers with easy charm and a high-wattage smile. He and his wife Kizzie had opened the shop just a day before the shooting. They refused to board up their glass storefront when protests turned to police clashes, and have served everybody through the months of protests. (The burgers are good.) While news footage might prepare you for a street lined by burnt-out hulks, a late April visit found the strip–largely small, black-run businesses–bustling, little different in feeling from hundreds of such strips anywhere.
This does not mean everything is fine in Ferguson. As of this writing, African-Americans now sit on the city council and a new, but interim black police chief has taken over. The legislature has capped the amount of income cities can derive from fines.
If history is any guide, though, Ferguson is doomed to a continued decline if there is not a broader white-black rapprochement, and if some more positive future for the town cannot be envisioned. If anything, Ferguson’s experience reinforces white fears that decline inevitably follows when blacks move in.
That’s why it is so important to place the demographic shift in Ferguson and its neighbors in a broader context. Ferguson’s slow decline is not just about race but includes stagnating if not declining incomes. The trend affects not just the 90 suburban jurisdictions of St. Louis County, but older, inner-ring suburbs in much of the country, whatever their racial makeup. The growth of suburban poverty has been documented since the turn of the century by the University of Minnesota’s Myron Orfield and the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan program, among others. Ferguson should give traction to their findings, and to a broad effort to engage metastasizing suburban poverty, but the issues barely register on the national radar. The violent racial dimension of Ferguson’s tragedy has unfortunately buried the larger issues, which have hit the African-American community hardest, but nevertheless affect the long-term economic and community well-being of everyone in places like Ferguson.
The State of the Missouri now seeks a broader consolidation of government functions among North County jurisdictions that lack resources to fund their balkanized police, courts, schools, and so on. But these jurisdictions were created with racially isolating intent. Such consolidations have long been sought unsuccessfully in fractured New Jersey and suburban New York—to give two examples with long, sorry histories. Fear of diluting established voters’ impact has limited consolidations, in spite of their desegregating successes and the substantial savings they create for taxpayers.
The new HBO series, “Show Me a Hero,” depicts a suburban-desegregation struggle—from Yonkers, N.Y., in the 1970s! To this day, affluent communities in Westchester County (of which Yonkers is a part) virulently resist zoning reforms that would permit the construction of housing aimed at middle- and lower-income households.
Under these circumstances, the persistance of protest is understandable. How else are citizens to keep the pressure on for change?