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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Lessons from Ferguson — history of St. Louis offers plenty of clues

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

St. Louis is celebrating the 250th anniversary of its founding with birthday cake.

Make that fiberglass birthday cakes — 251 of them — decorated by local artists and installed all across the St. Louis region at landmarks, businesses and cultural sites.

Just one of these 251 cakes is in Ferguson.

After two weeks of protests in the African-American community following the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the fact of this single cake tells us a little bit more about our region’s history than perhaps we’d like to ponder.

Take a look at the map of the cakes at stl250.org and compare it to the maps of the city’s development history in Colin Gordon’s 2008 book “Mapping Decline.” The pattern is nearly identical.

The maps and charts in Mr. Gordon’s book show overlay after overlay of public policy investments in the central corridor of St. Louis. The same properties often received multiple tax abatements over several decades, even as vast swaths of the north side of the city were ignored.

This is the story of St. Louis.

Root of the problem

The anger that simmered and then exploded in Ferguson has its roots in something more than a white cop from a force that doesn’t look like its community killing — however it happened — an unarmed black kid.

The root cause goes back further than a decision earlier this year by an all-white school board to fire a black superintendent who had welcomed black transfer students from the unaccredited school district where Michael Brown graduated from high school.

It stretches beyond the demographic changes over the past 25 years that had Ferguson turning from a majority white to a majority black inner-ring suburb of St. Louis.

Night after night in the past two weeks, as protesters marched southeast down West Florissant Avenue toward a line of mostly white police officers dressed for war, they were tracing the history of St. Louis going back more than 150 of its 250 years.

Had they kept marching roughly in a straight line, they would have eventually hit the infamous Pruitt-Igoe site, an abandoned, forested reminder of the city’s neglect of African-Americans as equal partners in the city’s growth.

Doomed housing project

In the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe was going to be a great public housing program to help pull blacks out of poverty. But it was badly conceived — stacking poor people vertically turned out to be a terrible idea wherever it was tried. It became a milestone in a history of investing in primarily white institutions and cordoning off black communities.

Pruitt-Igoe was razed in 1972. Nothing has happened to it since then.

Following a straight line of history from Pruitt-Igoe, marchers would eventually end up at the Mississippi River at the foot of Arsenal Street. It is called that for a reason because there stood the Union Arsenal that in 1861 was targeted for takeover by Missouri’s Gov. Claiborne Fox Jackson. He was a slaveholder and Southern sympathizer who wanted the weapons in the arsenal to help implement his plan for Missouri to join the Confederacy.

Four weeks after Fort Sumter, S.C., was bombarded and the Civil War began, Union soldiers, with the help of German immigrant volunteers, routed Jackson’s Confederate troops at a site near what is now St. Louis University’s main campus. Federal troops were bought in to restore the peace.

Ongoing civil war

To some extent or another, St. Louis has been fighting some version of the Civil War ever since.

Consider this: That same year Jackson attacked the Arsenal, he ordered state control of the city’s police department, a decision rife with racial undertones. The city didn’t regain control of its own police department for more than 150 years, until 2013, following a statewide vote.

As we write this, the protests in Ferguson have slowed down, the National Guard has been withdrawn, a fragile peace is returning, and the cable talking heads who invaded our city have turned to debating the intricate and mostly rumored details of a prosecution that may or may not ever take place.

Our community’s challenge is to keep the focus where it should be, on recognizing that the protests in Ferguson can be a turning point for a city with a regrettable history of marginalizing its black citizens.

The sad but undeniable truth is that St. Louis has long devalued African-American lives. For some, it’s difficult to admit. For others, it’s hard to see. We don’t do empathy very well.

Need to value lives

It’s easier to focus on distracting details of a shooting, or political battles between a governor and a prosecutor, and safe in our suburban enclaves, turn the page on Ferguson and pretend it was all a hazy hallucination.

This was not and is not a dream.

St. Louis earned this moment by spending too much of its history refusing to invest in communities dominated by African-American citizens and refusing them admittance to neighborhoods dominated by whites. Those decisions became the oxygen that fed the flame of protest: concentrated poverty, not enough jobs, separate and unequal schools, poor health care.

In the first editorial this page wrote on the Michael Brown case, we noted that the likelihood of a conviction in the case is extremely low. That remains true. It is the simple reality of most police shootings. But there can be an important conviction: The conviction of a city to change.

There is a serendipity in the historic line that connects Ferguson to Pruitt-Igoe to the Arsenal.

City needs to change

The current tenant of the federal property at the foot of Arsenal Street is the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which is looking for a new home for its 3,000 jobs, with more promised down the road.

The city’s choice to compete among others in the St. Louis region is the former Pruitt-Igoe site, located in the center of Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration development. NorthSide is the first and only large-scale proposal in the city’s recent history to bring massive public and private investment to a community that has been ignored.

Imagine the hope that would follow the addition of 3,000 jobs at the intersection of Jefferson and Cass avenues, about 10 miles away from where Michael Brown was killed. Those employees will need gas and food, a QuikTrip perhaps, or maybe a Reds BBQ. Some of those employees will want to live close to work. They’ll need houses. Maybe they’ll look to Ferguson.

With a little federal investment, with some introspection that allows us to both recognize and learn from our region’s still strong racial divide, with an unwavering focus on educational equality that values young African-American students no differently than white ones, the final chapter of the Ferguson story can be a hopeful one.

It will be written long after a tragic shooting, long after the protests have subsided, long after a legal case has been dissected and political grudges settled. The next chapter starts on Monday, when we mourn a black teenager who died too young.

No matter the details of his death, Michael Brown’s life had value. Many young people hoping to avoid his fate held up protest signs in Ferguson this week with a simple message: “Black lives matter.”

When all of St. Louis can agree on that, the next step in a difficult journey can begin.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.


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