People attend an event for slain 18-year-old Michael Brown at the Greater Grace Church on Sunday in Ferguson, Missouri. The event was led by the Rev. Al Sharpton in support of justice for Michael Brown, who was killed by police on Aug. 9.
By Tim Logan and Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times
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.”