Ferguson, Missouri. Most of us never would have heard of it, but many have now had the conversation: Where the hell is Ferguson? St. Louis, sort of?
But not simply St. Louis. Ferguson is not just a neighborhood in a sprawling city, as Watts is to Los Angeles or Flatbush to New York. This is attested to by the involvement of the Ferguson Police Department and County police forces in suppressing the recent riots, rather than the St. Louis PD, at least prior to being taken over by state on August 14th. The militarized police on the streets of the small city have not been drawn from the familiar standing armies, such as the NYPD or LAPD, but are instead a conglomeration of armed groups organized at the county level to manage those zones that lie beyond the reach of the traditional urban police departments. Aside from its own police, Ferguson has its own fire departments and its own school district. This is because it is not an urban neighborhood, but instead a fairly traditional post-war American suburb, independently incorporated as its own city.
This might seem to be a mundane fact, but it actually hints at much more significant shifts in the economic and racial geography of US metropolitan zones over the past twenty years. Without understanding these shifts, we cannot hope to understand the riots themselves, much less how they might overcome their limits in order to become a more sustained and disciplined assault on the present order.
Probably the most widely repeated thing in the mainstream accounts of Ferguson is that it has only become a conventionally poor, majority black neighborhood in the last decade. Like many postwar suburbs, the city’s heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s, which saw successive doubling of the population until it reached a peak of nearly 30,000 in 1970. Deindustrialization beginning in the ‘70s was then matched with a continual drop in population, to about 21,000 today, in line with St. Louis’ historic population loss.[i] But this was not so much a simple decline in total residents as it was a process of white flight, in which many wealthier people left the region as the economy was restructured, their aging houses taken over by poorer people seeking better schools and housing, neither of which existed in the deindustrialized and then mildly gentrifying core of urban St. Louis.
In some cities, this restructuring left hyper-diverse poor neighborhoods and suburban immigrant enclaves in the place of formerly white suburbia. Seattle’s southern suburbs, to take one example, are now as much as 30% foreign-born, with school districts stressed under the pressure of student bodies with upwards of thirty different native languages, from Amharic to Mixtec to Cambodian. Meanwhile, a number of suburbs in the US South and Southwest now have more residents speaking Spanish as a primary language than English.
But in many cities within the older rust belt, the process was less one of new migration and more a restructuring of existing patterns of segregation. This often saw the hollowing of the old city, the solidifying of some traditional inner-city ghettoes in Detroit-style environments of urban decay, and, in a few cities, the expansion of new zones of poverty outward into the suburbs. In these cities, the new segregation did not take the form of light diversity / high diversity, as in West Coast cities such as Seattle, Sacramento, and San Francisco, but instead retained its character as a white / black divide. St. Louis was one of these cities, but whereas others like Philadelphia, Detroit and Baltimore simply saw the consolidation of the traditional inner-city ghetto in the past twenty years, St. Louis saw both a condensing of its urban poverty and a suburbanization of this poverty.
Much of this demographic change has come in the last twenty years. As late as the 1990 census, the city was still 73.8% white and 25.1% black, but by 2010 this situation had entirely reversed, with 29.3% white and 67.4% black. Poverty had grown more severe and median income had either stagnated or dropped in the region, when adjusted for inflation. In Ferguson, unemployment doubled from around 5% in 2000 to an average of 13% between 2010 and 2012.