The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Whither Ferguson?

Screen shot of Louisa Avenue in Ferguson, MO.  Random, yes; representative, probably.  Source: Google Earth.

(Note: I want to welcome a lot of new readers to the Corner Side Yard.  Recent exposure at Business Insider, Huffington Post and a link from Real Clear Policy greatly increased the number of visitors over the last several days.  I hope you enjoyed what you saw; there’s much more to take in, and I invite you to stick around for awhile in the Corner Side Yard. -Pete)

So it appears that tensions are finally beginning to ease in Ferguson after nearly two weeks of public protests and confrontation with police following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police.  Here’s how Reuters described it this morning:

“In an apparent sign of easing tensions, Captain Ron Johnson, a black State Highway Patrol officer placed in command last week after the criticism of the local police, said a drawdown of National Guard troops would begin on Friday.

Governor Jay Nixon ordered the National Guard deployment to help quell the looting and vandalism that have accompanied the nightly protest rallies over Brown’s death on Aug. 9, but the troops have largely kept a low profile.

Clergy and civic leaders again urged protesters to remain peaceful and to return to their homes after dark.”

I must admit I don’t have any special information or insight into Ferguson and what’s happening on the ground, but I would think that the recent easing of tensions has more to do with weariness than either side — protestors or police — being able to claim any sort of victory.  I haven’t seen any real progress on anything that would begin to resolve the conflict or heal the community — progress on the shooting investigation, or any decision on prosecuting police officer and shooter Darren Wilson, for example — so I think it’s mostly a matter of both sides being tired and needing a rest.

At some point, those issues will be addressed.  There will be a completion of the investigation.  There will be a decision on whether to prosecute Officer Wilson.  There will be decisions made that will make some happy, others not so much.

But I wonder to myself — when this is all over, years after the tragedy and its aftermath recedes into our memory, what will happen to Ferguson?  I see clues, related to my recent post on suburban insulation, that suggests that the future does not look good for Ferguson.

Time Magazine had an excellent feature that explains in part how this happened:

“In 1990, Ferguson, Mo. was a middle class suburban enclave north of St. Louis with a population about three-quarters white. In 2000, the town’s population was roughly split between black and white with an unemployment rate of 5%. By 2010, the population was two-thirds black, unemployment had exceeded 13%, and the number of residents living in poverty had doubled in a decade.”

What we see in Ferguson now started nearly 25 years ago.  The choices made at that time created the town’s conditions today.

I see a white, middle-age and middle class community that largely elected to establish a bulkhead against the rapidly growing African-American population in Ferguson.  The wall withstood for a generation, even as people seeking its protection behind it continued to retreat further.  But now the wall has been breached, and soon Ferguson will recede from the memory of white residents of the St. Louis metro area.

Ferguson will join the St. Louis neighborhoods that underwent similar transitions in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, without the flash point of a young black man killed by a police officer.  Other St. Louis suburbs will follow suit.  The process is happening across the country as we speak.

There was an alternative to this.

Cities like Ferguson needed a proactive and race-conscious approach to the demographic transitions in its midst, not a race-avoidance approach.  Had Ferguson leaders and officials said that they would work to include their new residents — establishing a fair housing law, or focusing on desegregating its school district, or encouraging complete residential integration in the community, or even developing a public relations campaign to say the community was openly engaging its issues, for example — perhaps they could’ve avoided what will likely come next.  Sadly, the community chose the most common community path, the ironic path of least resistance — put up the strongest resistance until it fails, then leave.

If we know this doesn’t work, why do we keep on doing it?

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