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A Map To The Roots Of Ferguson's Civic Unrest


The surprise in Ferguson is not what happened but why it doesn't happen more often. That is Colin Gordon's assessment of the Michael Brown shooting and the unrest that followed it. Doctor Gordon is a Professor of History at the University of Iowa. He has studied the demographics of Ferguson and the other cities and towns that make up St. Louis County. And he says to understand what happened in Ferguson it helps to look at a map of St. Louis County. And Doctor Gordon joins us. Welcome to the program.

COLIN GORDON: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: You wrote recently a piece in "Dissent," you write that the St. Louis Metro Area is Southern in its race relations and Northern in its organization and regulation of property. I get what you mean by Southern in its race relations. What do you mean by Northern when it comes to property?

GORDON: Northern industrial cities - Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit among them - are much more segregated than their southern counterparts. In part as a reaction to the in-migration of African-Americans, particularly during the first and second world wars. So, you get much starker lines of segregation in a setting like St. Louis. And in that particular setting it's between an African-American North side and a largely White South side in the city. And for much of the 20th century a pretty hard line between the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County to the West.

SIEGEL: So, two separate jurisdictions. The City of St. Louis, which is also a County and then St. Louis County which has 90 different cities, villages, whatever's.

GORDON: Yeah, 90 different corporate units, each of which, you know, have the authority to zone land use, give tax breaks to business, to engage in, you know, the sort of local public policies which on a regional basis end up being intensely competitive.

SIEGEL: Yeah, and its most extreme. There's a town called Champ, Missouri with a population either 12 or 13, depending on your source which I gather, a track star founded, not all that long ago.

GORDON: The Champ story is an interesting one because the developer of Champ had dreams of attracting the 1960 Olympics and managed to persuade the Governor of the time that incorporation of these six houses was a good idea. And now it stands as - really just a sort of symbol of this insane fragmented municipal structure.

SIEGEL: How much of this is about race? How much of this is about white and some black flight from the City of St. Louis, seeking separate municipalities?

GORDON: I think it's really 80 percent of the story. I mean much of the motive for the creation of the municipalities, which began as private subdivisions and then subsequently incorporate, is clearly designed to replicate and reinforce segregation by race and later segregation by income.

SIEGEL: Does it strike you as odd that Ferguson, Missouri has become a city of 20,000, about two-thirds black, as opposed to white, and yet its city Council is - in six seats including the mayors, five of them are white, police chief is white, the police force is almost all white.

GORDON: No. A couple of things are going on. There's a lag between the demographic change and the political change. So, that I would expect Ferguson in five or 10 years to have more of an African-American political structure. But it's also true that almost all of its neighborhoods have poverty rates at or above 20 percent. They lack the natural solidarity's that come with middle-class African-American community, you know, churches and labor unions and community organizations.

SIEGEL: Do you see any clear political solution to their problems?

GORDON: I think the solution is to think about the city problems, to think about solutions to them on a metropolitan basis. Things like the collection of sales tax, the sharing of property tax revenues that feed the school.

SIEGEL: But I could imagine about 90 mayors who would have a stake in that not happening.

GORDON: Well, the irony here is that Ferguson and its surrounding communities in the 1940s and the 1950s were some of the fiercest defenders of white occupancy and white privilege in greater St. Louis. The winners in a sense are just on their way to becoming losers as development moves further out into the cornfields. This set of political circumstances works at the expense of the region as a whole. It's just a matter of, you know, persuading the few who think they're going to leap ahead of their neighbors, that it's a short-term and shortsighted strategy.

SIEGEL: Well Professor Gordon thanks for talking with us.

GORDON: I Thank you. It was a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Collin Gordon who's a professor of History at the University of Iowa. He also wrote the book, "Mapping Decline: St. Louis And the Fate Of The American City." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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