“What we want to know,” the barber said, “is where has the media been? Because these problems aren’t new.” It was a Tuesday afternoon in Ferguson, and we were at a barbershop a few blocks from where 18-year-old Michael Brown had been gunned down by Officer Darren Wilson nine days before. Barbers and patrons were giving us the gossip. Police had long been harassing the black community, they said. One customer reported seeing officers taking backpacks from young black men and emptying the contents on the ground. When asked if Wilson had been among them, he said yes.
Now Ferguson was reeling from a new form of brutality: St. Louis County cops had fired tear gas the previous night. Locals in the vicinity of the protests told us their throats were still sore and they feared another round. We thought this was important information and shared it on Twitter. We were not prepared for what happened next.
Within minutes, the door flew open and a camera crew from Al Jazeera America entered, followed by a crew from CNN, both of whom confirmed they had seen our tweets. Customers quickly finished their business and fled the scene. A barber who had been telling us his idea for a St. Louis reality show—“Rich white people live like us for 60 days, making $700 a month, see how it feels walking in our shoes” — announced he did not do media, and walked out. The camera crews rearranged the chairs and the clientele. One of us ended up getting a 20-minute fake haircut because a producer thought it would make an appealing background shot.
This is life in Ferguson, Missouri, in late August 2014: a media circus in which the complicated racial politics of St. Louis County’s 90 municipalities are parsed by pundits who, weeks before, could not have found Ferguson on a map.
But when the circus leaves town, as it is already starting to do, what will be left behind? Will St. Louis really have changed?
Everything might feel different in Ferguson—money, support and attention have been rolling into the town from all over the country in the past few weeks—but with the media’s eye trained on the woes of just one St. Louis suburb, many are ignoring the larger picture. The economic problems of Ferguson’s surrounding North County—more than 200 square miles of economically hard-hit towns, many majority black, located north of St. Louis’s bottomed-out inner city—remain unresolved and, outside of Ferguson, unaddressed.
St. Louis, once the fourth largest city in the country, buoyed by the Mississippi River trade, is a metropolis of ruins, dotted with neighborhoods full of smashed windows, broken doorways and crumbling walls that are living reminders of the city’s mid-century decline. North County, originally a quiet area of blue-collar communities, became an escape route from the city’s job loss, social unrest and decaying infrastructure. White families fled first in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by black families in the 1980s and 1990s. These days, North County is where struggling black St. Louis families come looking for a place to call home, only to find that the basic amenities necessary to raise a family—jobs, public transportation, a functional education system—are in short supply.
Entrance to the abandoned Jamestown Mall, which opened in 1972 and closed in June 2014. | Photo courtesy of the authors
Today, ruins dot the North County landscape too. An abandoned mall, its closed entrance declaring “Cash paid for anything of value.” A meadow, lush and random, in the space where the Wyndhurst and Terwood apartments—bulldozed in the 1980s for an airport extension that never materialized—once stood. A closed-down, castle-shaped playland turned night club turned day care turned abandoned failure. A faded wall of fame in Kinloch, Missouri’s first black incorporated town, proclaiming its historic achievements, before the population dwindled to 600 and it became capital of North County’s drug trade, another airport expansion casualty. Kinloch’s roads lead nowhere but are still blockaded with “Road Closed” signs, in case you mistakenly detected a sense of possibility.
By GLENN THRUSH
The St. Louis metropolitan area is a city of migration, but that migration is not limited to the historic patterns of successive white and black flight. Migration is an everyday occurrence. Many St. Louisans—especially poor and black St. Louisans—live in a state of permanent transience, moving from one apartment complex to the next, one suburb to the next, multiple times per year, on a futile hunt for safety and affordability. Canfield Green Apartments, where Michael Brown resided, is a typical example.
Hand-to-mouth living has made the notion of “hometown” debatable, particularly since the 2008 foreclosure crisis decimated the area. With families constantly moving between municipalities with populations of less than 500, many start thinking of North County itself—NoCo for short—as home.