Ferguson was simmering for decades


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FERGUSON, Mo. — The po­lice shoot­ing of Mi­chael Brown was the spark.

But the tin­der fu­el­ing the an­ger and re­sent­ment that has ex­ploded in Fer­gu­son, Mo., has been build­ing for de­cades.

The town has seen many mid­dle-class home­own­ers who ea­gerly moved to St. Louis’ north­ern sub­urbs af­ter World War II to buy brick ranch homes with nice yards leave, re­placed by poorer new­com­ers. Good blue-col­lar jobs have grown scarce; the fac­to­ries that once sprouted in this com­mu­nity have closed shop. Schools have strug­gled.

And lo­cal gov­ern­ments — slow to evolve — of­ten now look lit­tle like the peo­ple they rep­resent.

For the black com­mu­nity, it cre­ates a sense of lost op­por­tu­nity in a place much like other aging sub­urbs in the Rust Belt and across the coun­try.

“For a young black man, there’s not much em­ploy­ment, not a lot of op­por­tu­nity,” said Todd Swan­strom, a pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Mis­souri, St. Louis. “It’s kind of a tin­der box.”

The seeth­ing ten­sions prompted Mis­souri Gov. Jay Nixon to de­clare a cur­few in Fer­gu­son on Satur­day, one week af­ter a white po­lice of­fi­cer shot and killed Mr. Brown, an 18-year-old black.

Since Mr. Brown’s death, race and po­lice tac­tics have dom­i­nated the head­lines blar­ing from this town 12 miles north­west of St. Louis’ Gate­way Arch. But that’s only part of the story.

From jobs to schools to ra­cial tran­si­tion, Fer­gu­son and its neigh­bor­ing towns have un­der­gone sweep­ing changes in re­cent years. Some places have be­come pock­ets of pov­erty.

Others, like Fer­gu­son, re­main more mixed, with mid­dle-class sub­di­vi­sions along­side run-down streets and big apart­ment com­plexes like the one where Mr. Brown lived.

Either way, Mr. Swan­strom said, the area high­lights the grow­ing chal­lenge of the “sub­ur­ban­iza­tion” of pov­erty.

“This was a cat­a­lyst for some­thing much deeper: the lack of eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties and rep­re­sen­ta­tion peo­ple have,” said Ete­fia Umana, an ed­u­ca­tor and board mem­ber of a com­mu­nity group called Bet­ter Fam­ily Life. “A lot of the is­sues are boil­ing up.”

It’s been boil­ing for de­cades.

St. Louis’ jum­ble of sub­urbs — there are 91 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in a county of about 1 mil­lion peo­ple ring­ing the city — has long been sharply seg­re­gated. Un­til the late 1940s, re­stric­tive cov­enants blocked blacks from buy­ing homes in many of them.

Well into the 1970s, tight zon­ing re­stric­tions and other rules, es­pe­cially in places near the city’s mostly black north side, kept many largely white, said Colin Gor­don, a Univer­sity of Iowa pro­fes­sor who’s stud­ied hous­ing in St. Louis.

That be­gan to change by the 1980s, when mid­dle- and work­ing-class white fam­i­lies be­gan leav­ing the area around Fer­gu­son for newer, room­ier hous­ing fur­ther out in the ex­urbs. In their place came a flood of black fam­i­lies from St. Louis in search of bet­ter hous­ing and schools.

In Fer­gu­son, change hap­pened fast. In a gen­er­a­tion — from 1990 to to­day — the pop­u­la­tion changed from three-fourths white to two-thirds black.

Even as the area’s de­mo­graph­ics shifted, good blue-col­lar jobs sus­tained many of these towns, said Lara Gran­ich, a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer.

“Ev­ery­one in our par­ish was a brick layer or a let­ter car­rier or some­thing. I didn’t know any­one who had gone to col­lege, but they all made a de­cent liv­ing,” said Mr. Gran­ich, who grew up in nearby Glas­gow Vil­lage, an­other neigh­bor­hood on the de­cline. “The peo­ple who live there now tend to work at McDon­ald’s.”

Gail Bab­cock, pro­gram di­rec­tor at Fer­gu­son Youth Ini­tia­tive, was quick to note her town still has a strong sense of com­mu­nity — and ev­ery morn­ing last week vol­un­teers have poured in to clean up from pro­tests and loot­ing.

The chal­lenge is in con­nect­ing its poorer res­i­dents — es­pe­cially younger ones — to it.

“It’s very hard for them to find jobs,” said Ms. Bab­cock, who runs a com­mu­nity ser­vice pro­gram for youth con­victed of mi­nor crim­i­nal of­fenses. “That sets up a sit­u­a­tion where they tend to get in trou­ble, and they prob­a­bly wouldn’t un­der other cir­cum­stances.”

United States - North America - Missouri - St. Louis - Jay Nixon - Missouri state government - Michael Brown - Emerson Electric Co


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