A Divided St. Louis that Must Be Repaired

St. Louis is a divided region. In 1876, the City of St. Louis voted to separate from St. Louis County, defining a surprisingly small city center, barely a quarter the area of Chicago, and making it one of the few major independent cities in the United States. During the 1900s, the City was divided into a poor, largely black North City and a more affluent South City. St. Louis was split again—not geographically but socially—in August when Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, a suburb in St. Louis County. What happened in Ferguson this summer was likely the inevitable result of the divisions with which St. Louis has never grappled. What is not inevitable is that St. Louis will seize this opportunity to heal these fractures. To do so, the region must recognize how these divisions were deliberately constructed, and pursue the intentional dismantling of their consequences.

A racially-divided St. Louis was created throughout the twentieth century. The first half of the century was a story of growth and progress. In 1904, St. Louis hosted the first Olympics on American soil, alongside a World’s Fair. By 1950, St. Louis was the eighth-largest city in the country. Accompanying this rise, the city’s existing segregation into black and white was formalized.  Redlining—the then-legal process of restricting housing by race—defined select neighborhoods where blacks were allowed to rent or buy. Existing black neighborhoods were considered a loss; white neighborhoods were protected from change. Even after redlining was officially prohibited, realtors and municipal decision-makers worked to maintain the same outcome: racially-restricted housing.

Eventually, a large portion of North City was set aside for black residents, who were barred from most other areas by formal and informal housing covenants, including the increasingly affluent County suburbs. As the City’s population declined sharply after World War II, spurred by rampant white flight, the urban core was hollowed out. The same pattern hit many cities, especially other Midwestern industrial centers like Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago. Housing restrictions kept black citizens from fleeing the blight, further concentrating poverty within the majority-black North City.

Even well-meaning efforts reinforced segregation and poverty. The Pruitt-Igoe public housing projects, built in the 1950s, were hailed as a progressive solution to the problems of slums and urban decay, and the city leveled several blocks in North City to build the segregated high-rise buildings. They quickly fell into disrepair and attracted crime, deteriorating without financial support from the City to ensure upkeep. Barely two decades after construction, having cost hundreds of millions in today’s dollars, the failed projects were demolished. The neighborhoods cleared to build Pruitt-Igoe never recovered. Those in power did not control changing economies or demographic trends, but they did ensure that the worst effects were felt by an increasingly marginalized black population. Today, the former site of Pruitt-Igoe is surrounded by blocks with only a few houses on each street. North city is devastated: it was designed to fail, and it did.  The echoes of this mid-1900s segregationist policy were felt in Ferguson this past summer.

When the City voted to separate from the County in 1876, City residents were worried about the poorer, sparser County siphoning off tax revenue. As suburbanization boosted the County’s population and wealth, this separation increasingly hurt the City’s financial and social position. And divisions continued: dozens of cities incorporated within St. Louis County during the twentieth century, a process of balkanization that created the 91 distinct municipalities that exist today. One ‘city’ has a population of 12. This creates a complicated map of overlapping taxes, school districts, and police.

The very real effects of these confusing divisions were seen this past August. A Ferguson (population: 21,000, 67% black, North County) police officer who lived in Crestwood (population: 12,000, 94% white, South County) shot Michael Brown. The investigation was handed over to County Police, an overarching force that has authority over, but does not patrol, Ferguson. The County Prosecutor’s office in Clayton (population: 16,000, 78% white, West County) oversaw the grand jury proceedings. Calls for everything from body cameras on police to altered hiring practices have to contend with the political realities of this municipal patchwork.

After housing restrictions were lifted, black flight followed older waves of white flight, predominantly into North County, to escape the decay of North City. Cities like Ferguson and Florissant, northwest of the city limits, shifted from largely white suburbs to racially-mixed, but poorly-integrated, communities. City councils and police departments, staffed largely by officers from other towns, did not shift accordingly. This is the context in which Ferguson became a household name.  In Ferguson, newer black residents concentrated in middling apartment complexes in one corner of the city. Police calls and patrols became more common in the area. Tensions increased between police and the apartment residents. Darren Wilson and Michael Brown interacted for all of ninety seconds before Brown was dead and Wilson went into hiding, but the forces that brought them together on August 9th were slowly churning for decades.

Since that day, the world has watched waves of unrest and violence. Riot gear, arson, and tear gas made headlines on the warm nights of August and again following the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson in November. News networks broadcasted burning cop cars side-by-side with President Obama’s appeals for calm. Yet despite the endless visuals of violence and the portrait of a community seeming to self-destruct on national television, much has happened in St. Louis out of sight of the cameras that shows a first step toward progress.

In Ferguson, volunteers came out each morning to clean up the debris from protests the night before. With the start of the school year delayed, donations of school supplies flooded in to churches and community centers, and libraries offered free lessons for children. Peace vigils sprang up in neighborhoods around the region. Protests marched through downtown St. Louis at the foot of the iconic Arch to call for peace and change. Universities assembled panels of experts in law, policing, and civil rights to provide context and information. Antonio French, a North City alderman, founded #HealSTL, a social media volunteer organization, and opened a storefront in Ferguson to coordinate long-term efforts. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon formed the independent Ferguson Commission—whose members range from young black activists to police officers to clergy—which is charged with finding a path to a stronger region through communication and action.

When the grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, protests marched along South Grand, a strip of shops and ethnic restaurants at the center of South City, far from Ferguson, but a secondary epicenter of protests. Around a dozen windows were shattered and businesses rushed to board up damaged and undamaged storefronts alike in anticipation of more protests. Right away, the neighborhood associations put out a call for materials, artists, and volunteers to decorate the plywood. Hundreds of people came out all day and night to paint images and words of support, turning a symbol of a broken community into uplifting messages of healing and love. Rather than exist for weeks as a boarded up ghost town, South Grand was transformed into an impromptu art walk. Few such events grabbed national attention, but they have galvanized St. Louis communities and brought a shaken populace together in the wake of tragedy. They seemed to begin the slow—painfully slow—process of healing.

No one can know if St. Louis will face the aftermath of the events in Ferguson with the resolve to address the long-standing divides that culminated in Brown’s death. Protests last weeks or months. Progress takes years and decades. The Ferguson Commission is encouraging dialogue and new ideas while the conversations St. Louisans have with each other every day open new channels of communication over old separations. This fractured and segregated city took decades of concerted effort and troubling economic forces to create.  St. Louis now requires the deliberate interventions of many to repair itself and move toward a community that is brought together as purposefully as it has been divided.

[This essay served as part of my application to the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship]