The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Isolation, Insulation and Ferguson

Protesters in Ferguson, MO.  Source:

A group of people cannot be isolated unless another group of people is insulated.  One cannot happen without the other.  This is a factor in the way American communities have been constructed since time immemorial.  That is behind much of the conflict in Ferguson, Missouri.

This struck me as I read a recent piece on Buzzfeed about Ferguson’s racial divide.  Is there one?  It depends on who you ask.  One white resident says:

“I think this whole thing is getting blown out of proportion,” said Tries, who is white and 35 years old. “There’s never been any kind of race thing here. It’s something I never even think about.”

And a black resident disagrees:

“Everyone knows the statistics,” said Turner, referring to the now well-known figures showing a disproportionate amount of traffic stops and arrests for blacks. “Ask anybody from the city,” he said, meaning St. Louis. “Don’t nobody come in from the city because they know this is one of the most racist places there is.”  

How can there be such starkly opposing views of the same town?  The mayor’s comments tipped me off:

 “I grew up here, and it’s always been a very diverse community,” said James Knowles, mayor of Ferguson since 2011, who is white. “So for people to come out and say that there’s some long-standing anger or there’s a history of racial tension is absolutely ridiculous,” he said. “There’s not a black-white divide in Ferguson.”

You might expect him to say that.  But here’s the revealing comment:

 Mayor Knowles did acknowledge one division in his town: that between homeowners and renters. “We have a divide, unfortunately, between people who stay here and people who live here,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to integrate those people into the fold.”

It just so happens that Ferguson’s homeowners are overwhelmingly white, while its renters are overwhelmingly black.  Characterizing one group as being invested in the community and the other as interlopers reveals how one group is isolated and the other is insulated.

I’ve been accused in the past of viewing the growth and expansion of the suburbs through a racial prism.  I acknowledge that growing up in Detroit, and seeing its transformation right before my eyes in the ’70s and ’80s, might make me think that way.  But I also do recognize the aspirational nature of suburban migration for all who move there.  My family nearly made the move to the burbs in the ’70s before deciding to stay put in Detroit, and I remember being saddened by my parents’ decision as a child.

But I’ve never felt that, at least for many Rust Belt cities, that the move to the suburbs was entirely aspirational, that race was often a fairly significant component.

I pulled some demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to get an understanding of Ferguson.  Maybe some residents can say there is no racial divide in Ferguson, but there are pretty sharp differences.

To many, Ferguson is a proud, middle-class community of well-educated middle-age homeowners.  I’m sure if you ask them, they know their neighbors, they love their local businesses and restaurants and they enjoy the comfortable life they live.

They are insulated.

To many more, Ferguson is a community of working-class residents, largely young, living barely above poverty.  They mostly rent, they have lower education levels.  If you ask them, they likely recently moved to Ferguson to escape similar conditions in St. Louis, but are growing increasingly frustrated with their lack of progress in the community.

They are isolated.

One cannot exist without the other.

I know communities like Ferguson.  I’ve worked in communities like Ferguson.  Don’t believe for one second that Ferguson is unique — there are thousands of communities just like it throughout the nation.  Those communities just haven’t had a terrible tragedy serve as a flash point for social and economic frustrations of the black community.  At least not yet.

People are slowly beginning to understand the mechanisms of recent racial isolation.  Slavery, of course, is easily understood as a tool of racial exclusion.  Jim Crow laws are just as easily understood.  Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent masterpiece The Case for Reparations eloquently described the tools recent racial isolation — redlining and blockbusting tactics squeezed wealth from black residents and created poor communities entirely different than previous poor communities in our nation.  Harvard professor Robert Sampson, interviewed for the reparations article, talked about Chicago’s poor black neighborhoods, and how they compare to other cities nationwide:

In other words, Chicago’s impoverished black neighborhoods—characterized by high unemployment and households headed by single parents—are not simply poor; they are “ecologically distinct.” This “is not simply the same thing as low economic status,” writes Sampson. “In this pattern Chicago is not alone.”

Today, redlining and blockbusting are patently illegal.  They still may occur, but there is growing awareness of the practices and the damages they’ve incurred.  But little attention is given to the practices of insulation — creating physical and social/cultural separation from undesirable conditions.  This is the last bastion of segregation, and it’s what’s at work in Ferguson at this time.

Insulation can occur in city neighborhoods or in distant exurbs, but it is largely a suburban phenomenon.  There are communities that have been distinct enclaves — historic Dearborn, MI in suburban Detroit or the pre-’90s Bridgeport neighborhood in Chicago come to mind — and there are newer communities that have worked hard to establish and maintain an idyllic nature to them, signalling to others that their community is for just a select few.  Here are some of the tools of insulation employed by communities:

  • Overwhelmingly single-family homes make up its housing stock;
  • An obsession with high property values for single-family homes;
  • A lack of rental housing, particularly multifamily developments of any kind;
  • Strong control of local schools and maintenance of school quality and perception;
  • A strong local business community, limiting intrusion by franchises, if possible;
  • A resistance to community access by public transit; and
  • A strong law and order orientation.
The farther one goes from a city center, there is a difference in how insulation tactics are employed.  Focusing on the first three tools listed above might be enough for a suburb that’s 30 miles from the core city.  A community that’s much closer to the city might want to put more insulation practices in place.
But what if your community is squarely in the path of black suburban migration?  What if your suburban community has affordable homes, a high number of multifamily rental units, or is even accessible by public transit?
The remnants of your community might retreat to the highest value area of single family homes, and let the law and order tactic take over.  You might hold on to your reality, even as everything you know changes.
Several years ago I was working for a community, and I was asked by the city manager to do a demographic analysis for the local school district.  I did, and found an interesting trend.  The community was rapidly moving toward becoming a majority-minority community, and would likely do so within the decade.  The city manager’s response?  It simply could not be true, because it did not conform with his experience in the city, nor of others like him.  He questioned the validity of the data and suggested I remove race and ethnic data from the analysis.  The school district, you know, just wants to know the number of kids that they would be expected to serve.
You cannot have isolation without insulation.

3 Responses to “Isolation, Insulation and Ferguson”

  1. Daniel

    This is really good. And those numbers from Ferguson are really stark – I'm especially taken, like you, by the ownership-rental split, but also by the age split. A 20-year median age gap is really enormous, and suggests to me that white families with school-age kids simply shun the town, and that a large percentage of the remaining whites are people who moved there a long time ago, possibly before it had a major black population. The fact that black and white households are at such different life stages in Ferguson I'm sure only increases the social isolation/insulation.


  2. Alon

    This.The insulation tactics are different at different stages of suburbanization, as you note, and it's interesting to see the flip in public transit specifically. Thirty years ago, the standard insulation tactic was to engage in NIMBY protests against subways. That's for example why Congress passed a law banning tunneling under Wilshire, and why MARTA only serves Fulton and DeKalb Counties and gets no state support. Nowadays, in many suburbs they have the same attitude, but in urban and inner-suburban areas the attitudes have flipped: today, it's all about having transit serve choice riders and build city-center streetcars, while ignoring low-income and nonwhite neighborhoods' transit needs; it's a tool of isolation and not insulation today.Schools are a somewhat different example, but, in gentrifying New York neighborhoods, white parents get the city to organize separate schools, sometimes in the same building.



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