#Ferguson Observations from an Erstwhile Local

Less than two weeks ago an altercation between teenager “Big Mike” Brown and Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson ended with bloody finality and ignited sub-surface social tensions in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. There has been no dearth of coverage throughout the media. Much of it has been excellent, but with few exceptions I — a native St. Louisan who only left at age 47 — have not found good descriptions of the overall dynamic present in the region. Unable to experience the situation firsthand, I keep waiting for the narrative of St. Louis’ evolution to emerge. As people are beginning to realize, Ferguson is emblematic of much larger problems; a symbol in a language of oppression. This is not to diminish the importance of individual stories, but to add another layer of nuance and demonstrate that the events of Ferguson are not materializing from thin air, and they will not disappear when the current tension abates. The St. Louis metropolitan area is a product of social, civic, and economic segregation practices that date back to the late nineteenth century.

For a topic so volatile, opinions have varied widely and clustered within a couple of broad narratives: oppression of a minority people and the maintenance of law and order. In one of the best essays I have read, Jeanette Cooperman — a St. Louis writer — reaches back to the eighteenth century to illustrate how those in power used social and civic levers to segregate and control black communities. Recently, a 1937 map of redlined neighborhoods in the St. Louis region has been making the rounds on Twitter. Although it is dangerous to attribute today’s tension in Ferguson to redlining six decades ago (when the town’s demographic composition was quite different,) the idea that minority neighborhoods have traditionally been deprived of wealth and capital is relevant. However, that is not a phenomenon unique to St. Louis, and therefore leaves me unsatisfied when looking for causes. Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior wrote a positive and compelling piece about St. Louis that reminds me of its vitality and opportunity. Christian Davenport — a professor of political science at University of Michigan — wrote this post on the different outcomes of policing when the race of protestors and law enforcement varies. Finally, on the law and order side of the debate, there are posts demonstrating support for Darren Wilson and asserting that compliance to authority is the answer to avoiding trouble.

If we use Mike Brown’s tragedy to find abiding Truths — and I think that is an excellent, noble purpose — then we discover St. Louis fixated on its past. The structures and processes that led to Ferguson, social oppression, and economic inequality are rooted in the nostalgia of a great city at the nexus of commerce.

Early image of the Veiled Prophet.

Early image of the Veiled Prophet.

One manifestation of power in St. Louis is the venerable Veiled Prophet Ball. Although rebranded recently to discard some of its controversial past, the ball has been a symbol of wealth and power for 140 years. Even at its inception in 1878, its purpose was to advance St. Louis as an industrial and agricultural powerhouse to compete with Chicago, despite the fact that the competition was over. The secret society that hosts the event has been comprised of St. Louis’ most powerful men — white, Christian men — who asserted that the ball was designed to boost civic identity and celebrate the success of the region’s élite. Not surprisingly, many working class and non-whites have not shared this interpretation. Apparent in the early symbolism of the pageant (see photo) are racist and authoritarian themes that concerned those outside of the society. The ball was the target of civil rights protests in the late 1960s, which further polarized the population. Blacks were not allowed to join the society until the 1980s, enforcing the dividing line between those who rose through the alleged meritocracy and those who truly held power. The ball is no longer televised, nor does it receive much media attention, but its legacy of asserting social power remains.

On a more mundane level, hierarchy is negotiated in the common starting point of conversation amongst St. Louis natives, “where did you go to high school?” Regardless of age or distance from your home, meet a St. Louisan and they will ask the question, although some do so apologetically. Although I have moved to Chicago and New York, I still must answer it, and it is an embarrassing one. The response immediately conveys your geographic, social, and economic status. North, south, or central; working class or old money; someone with a desirable network or not. These answers provide a potentially big ego boost to the questioner, or alienate all parties and stifle further discussion. It is a bit like asking someone how much money their parents make, or whether they have had many lovers. And lest we question the concreteness of the hierarchy, realize that the successful graduate from Normandy High (the school from which Mike Brown graduated) will never merit the same consideration as the washed-out drug addict from a school like John Burroughs or MICDS (the Country Day franchise.) This is but one way that social mobility is stifled. Like the Veiled Prophet, this structure projects and enforces differences throughout society, beyond the élite all the way to the poorest strata. It may be cloaked in pride, but the only purpose it serves is to perpetuate difference.

The fears of the past and the desire to maintain political dominance manifest in the evolution of civic entities. Other writers have addressed the fragmentation of the region; there is little controversy in asserting that this is by design. St. Louis is one of two American cities that is apart from a county (the other is Baltimore) because it seceded from St. Louis county in 1877. At the time the city was prosperous and metropolitan and it resented the “double taxation” imposed upon it by the rural county. The result can almost be described as a civic schism, ironic in the present day because of the change of fortunes between the two. Additionally, the surrounding county (which includes Ferguson) contains ninety separate municipalities, creating a bizarre mosaic of enclaves witnessing impoverished neighborhoods next to wealthy ones. This plurality of townships often prevents economies of scale and creates risk of capital flight from small neighborhoods. The loss of one employer can mean impoverishment for a city government. One result of this — discussed this week by Jeff Smith on Real Money with Ali Velshi — is the reliance on misdemeanor fees collected through citations. Residents are harassed through fines in order to maintain vital services. A second consequence is the use of county police in lieu of a local force. This separates officers from the community and prevents the relationships necessary for the peaceful maintenance of order.

In response to decades of neighborhood deterioration and population loss, the city implemented a plan in the mid-1990s to redevelop the central corridor between downtown and the Central West End (uptown.) The capital improvements to anchor organizations like St. Louis University and Barnes Hospital created tremendous development opportunities but effectively severed any connection between historically black north and historically white south city neighborhoods. As a result, gentrification is occurring through downtown, midtown, and uptown, while the rest of the city continues to deteriorate. Certainly there are neighborhoods thriving (mostly on the south side) but the ability to connect these into a cohesive network is missing. Instead, city fortunes vary on a block-by-block basis. The shocking distinction is wonderfully captured in this BBC report examining the profound differences found along Delmar Boulevard, a street that divides north and south St. Louis.

The county is also no stranger to bizarre planning. One of the most visible projects was the Page Avenue extension, subsidized by St. Louis county to provide easier access to St. Charles county, west of the Missouri river. Once a rural county peppered with small townships, St. Charles is now an unbroken exurb filled with subdivisions and big box-anchored shopping plazas. New schools, cheap property taxes, and subsidized roads make it attractive to former inner ring suburb residents who want to flee the higher social costs of living in St. Louis county. Not surprisingly, employers are beginning to follow the demographic shift and relocate west of the Missouri river as well. Although signs of growth pains are already evident, the momentum remains strong and will certainly carry more of the population away from St. Louis county (similar forces are acting on the Illinois side of the Mississippi river, where an exurban explosion is also taking place.) In affluent areas, such as Kirkwood, Missouri, the city invoked eminent domain to condemn the entire neighboring village of Meacham Park, which was almost all black. The land now contains a Lowe’s and Sam’s Club. Although the region’s population is stagnant, geographical realignment is a method employed to retain power and maintain the “integrity” of communities.

When I look at the situation unfolding in Ferguson, I [sadly] see the result of an evolutionary process. I see people outraged at the actions of a disengaged law enforcement apparatus, disenfranchised by generations of segregation, and dehumanized by a culture of paternalism. But also important is the flip side: agreement with the actions taken, belief that the presence of a militarized police force demonstrates a problem with crime, and confirmation of long-held beliefs that minorities are not ready to be a part of civil society. These are late-nineteenth century attitudes of race perpetuated through twenty-first century systems and institutions.

St. Louis has many great characteristics. There are great people there. I know many of them, and often miss not being in their company. But this is not about the good. This is about facing our failings and becoming stronger. This is about penance.

We certainly need justice for Mike Brown. We need justice for Ferguson, too. But what is not being communicated by the national media is that we also need justice for the people of Kinloch, Black Jack, St. Ann, Jennings, and many others. Until the region stops gazing nostalgically at its past and recognizes the shape (and color) of its future, there will be more Fergusons.