Of All Places, Why Ferguson?
August 18, 2014

Why Ferguson? Of all the incidents of confrontation between African Americans and police officers, why is Ferguson more instructive, more illustrative of long term social structural problems?

The Segregation Problem

Social and broadcast media have referenced St. Louis as a segregated city, but offer the viewers little context. The problem goes back to the early 20th century when St. Louis (city) adopted restrictive covenants in real estate transactions to limit Black residences to a small area on the north side. “The Ville” is an historic black neighborhood, and was home to Sumner High School, one of the first high schools for African American students west of the Mississippi River, (map pdf). The issue of these restrictive covenants was settled, in a legal sense, in Shelley v. Kraemer, in which the Supreme Court ruled (1948) that the covenants were not enforceable. (see also: Inclusions)

We can reasonably date the “white flight” to the 1950s, in the wake of the Shelley v. Kraemer decision, the ‘flight’ increased in the 1960s and 1970s. The real estate developments created a plethora of small jurisdictions, each with its own zoning and residential standards — most designed to exclude lower income, mostly minority, home buyers. [UIA] The University of Iowa’s “Mapping Declinemap series is especially helpful in visualizing this movement, and should be consulted for a better understanding than the summary offered here. Here’s the map for the St. Louis area in the 1940s and 1950s:


White areas show an increase in white population, black indicate increases in black population and red and orange indicate decreases in both white and black populations.

By 1980 the “white flight” phenomena was in full view, as in this map — modified from the University of Iowa original.


By 2000 the depopulation of St. Louis (city) is well under way. A city of nearly a million people at its height, the loss of industrial, commercial, and manufacturing employment in the city reduces the overall population to approximately 350,000. [StL]

The map for 2010 can be argued to show a change in direction from an area in which African American population replaces formerly white populated areas, and starts to reveal the ‘gentrification’ of the downtown area of the city, the sprawl in the suburban zones, and the general depopulation of the region — in short, decreases are showing up all over the place.


Thus, the map from Business Week can be said to reveal who’s left in the area:


Light blue areas indicate 20% African American population or less, slightly darker blue shows 20% to 40%, medium blue shows 40% to 60%, darkened blue 60% to 80%, and dark blue 80% or more. However, mapping demographic movement and the replacement of formerly all white neighborhoods with more diverse populations doesn’t complete the picture.

Non-Renewal Renewal

Another facet of the problems revolves around the city’s attempt at renewal. The urban renewal efforts after 1970 tended to push African Americans out of their former neighborhoods, displacing residents to the inner ring of suburbs, (seedemolition of the infamous Pruitt Igoe Housing Project) Colin Gordon’s workdescribes the civic emphasis:

“St. Louis’ urban renewal projects included two baseball stadiums, hotels, a convention center, the Jefferson Memorial and casinos. But with old rail beds scarring the city, a dismal view of the struggling East St. Louis across the river and most of the riverfront remaining unsightly industrial land, St. Louis never got over the hump to stand out against other cities. And, unfortunately, the efforts didn’t generate long-term stability or decent jobs…”

When the Kansas City Federal Reserve studied population and employment in the region in 2003 St. Louis lead the decline with an abysmal 16.5% decline rate from 1950 to 2000. (KFED pdf] (Pittsburgh was second at 13.1%, Buffalo third at 12.8%) The reason was fairly obvious:

“The area was once home to many business headquarters, and still is home to 21 of the Fortune 1,000 largest U.S. companies. But some have moved out, including Anheuser-Busch, which was sold for $52 billion to the Belgium company InBev in 2008.Much of the employment in the region is located outside St. Louis’ city boundaries, borders that were set in 1876 when the city and county were divided. Neighboring St. Louis County makes up 20.1 percent of the state’s economic share, St. Charles County 6.1 percent while the city only accounts for 5.4 percent, according to 2007 data.” [PBS]

The Ford plant in Hazelwood, MO (near Ferguson) was closed in 2006, and mostly demolished. A smaller manufacturing firm (International Food) moved into remainder in 2013. [CBS] Chrysler closed the South Plant (Fenton, MO) in June 2008 with production moved to Windsor, Canada. The North Plant closed in 2009 and both plants were dismantled in 2011. In short, the automobile industry followed the previous flight of the shoe manufacturers, once third largest in the nation, from St. Louis to parts elsewhere.

The Fragmentation Issue

When St. Louis and St. Louis County parted company in 1876, often called The Great Divorce, a highly contentious election determined the present city line and county boundary. At that point there were 310,000 city residents who didn’t want to be responsible for the 27,000 residents of the county. The boundary was set at Skinker Boulevard so the city could claim Forest Park. Within about 25 years the City was beginning to regret its decision. [TRT] The result was a fragmentation of the county into some 91 separate jurisdictions.

Not only did the separate jurisdictions have differentiated city zoning and residential ordinances, but all other areas of governance were split as well. Voters rejected a borough plan of coordination similar to that in New York City in the 1930s, and a district plan went down to defeat in a 1959 election. The fracturing continued.

We have been witnessing the plethora of police departments from the county entering the Ferguson city limits, which is, in some respects symbolic of a larger problem — the fractured state of county/city coordination efforts which affects not only law enforcement, but community development, economic planning and development, and various other government services. It’s not entirely unreasonable to place the origin of St. Louis County’s failure to respond to serious social issues in the lap of the Great Divorce, and subsequent failures to address the possibilities which greater consolidation could offer.

In short, what we’re watching on television at the moment is a failure long in the making — a city and county unable to live with or without each other, a county fragmented into suburbs large and tiny which obstructs coordinated development, racial and ethnic divisions sorted from and into specific neighborhoods first by law and then by practice, and the overall decline of manufacturing in the area.

The issues revolving around the Michael Brown Case will eventually be resolved, what isn’t quite so clear is whether or not St. Louis and St. Louis County can commit to any form of coordinated governance, or to any consolidated and focused plan for economic development.

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