As a black man who grew up near Ferguson, I dreaded going home for Thanksgiving this week. I watched cable news with dismay while I packed Tuesday. Familiar parts of my old neighborhood were burning. While the Tuesday morning sky was relatively calm above Ferguson as I landed, I knew things on the ground were different as soon as I saw the National Guard Humvees and police cruisers parked along the roads as I left Lambert-St. Louis Airport. Not even in the paranoid months following Sept. 11 had they been out in such force.
My mother, who lives a few minutes away from Ferguson, in Florissant, participated in the early peaceful protests after Michael Brown’s shooting. We talked almost daily about it. She had planned to attend the ill-fated evening march that occurred the day after his death on Aug. 9. If she hadn’t twisted her ankle at church that morning, she would have been caught up in the violence that turned Ferguson overnight into shorthand for a never-before-seen raw display of militarized police brutality on American soil.
Now that I was finally home for the first time since Brown’s death, I felt compelled to head down there. What I saw was devastating, but I also saw an opportunity for the town to move forward.
As I drove down West Florissant road, crossing over Interstate 270 into Ferguson, the empty but intact storefronts on the Florissant side quickly gave way to graffiti and boarded-up shops, bracing for the worst. Shopkeepers who had been spared from Monday night’s riot were girding for Tuesday night, quickly boarding up what they could before nightfall. I passed by a row of a dozen burned out cars and a destroyed Conoco gas station. Standing on the corner of West Florissant and Chambers near the police roadblock around dusk made me feel like I was in the middle of a far-away battle zone rather than the nearby salon where my mom and my sister regularly get their hair done. A lone olive-drab Humvee lurked behind a partially boarded-up Walgreens’. Across the street, the remains of the Prime Beauty Supply store still smoldered from last night’s riot, the building flattened to rubble as if it had been hit by a drone strike. The faint smell of smoke and destruction still lingered.
This wasn’t the Ferguson of my youth. Ferguson, Florissant and the other towns that make up the predominantly black North County part of St. Louis County were once examples of a thriving black middle class, with big-box stores such as Target and local supermarkets dotting the landscape. GM, Ford and former aerospace giant McDonnell Douglas provided plenty of high-quality, skilled manufacturing jobs. The loss of those jobs over the last 30 years and the financial crisis of 2008 took their toll on North County, turning those big-box stores into mega-churches, predatory payday-loan stores, and vacant, decaying malls. The predominantly white parts of West and South St. Louis County however, thrived. This story of decline isn’t unique to Ferguson, but the riots couldn’t have come at a worse time for local businesses and their employees who now head into the holidays jobless because of Monday’s mayhem.
Curtis Triggs, director of the St. Louis Business Center, a nonprofit that does business development for local small businesses, met with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s staff and investors about an economic plan for Ferguson last month. “Now after the riots, we’re back to ground zero.” Triggs also feared that Ferguson might not ever recover from the riots, just as communities hit by the 1992 L.A. riots have yet to recover, nearly 25 years later. He felt that the lack of economic engagement in Ferguson is responsible for the lack of political engagement that could make real change for local African-Americans. Triggs noted that while Ferguson still has some of its high-earning middle-class base, a large portion of its residents are low-income renters who only stay a year or two. As a result, they aren’t focusing on long-term issues such as improving the school system or changing the police force to one that better represents the racial makeup of the community.
While Fortune 500 companies such as Emerson Electric are returning to Ferguson, Triggs said it could be a Catch-22 for locals if Ferguson schools can’t provide a trained workforce ready to meet their needs. Ferguson and North County also can’t afford to lose out on joining St. Louis’s lesser-known startup renaissance as a path to long-term economic recovery. Venture capital research firm CB Insights said this month the city was the fastest growing region in the world for startups.
Rebuilding and reinvesting in Ferguson won’t magically fix the area’s social and racial fault lines overnight, but it will give teens like Mike Brown a real chance to succeed in the future. I just hope that the next time I come home, it won’t feel like Ferguson is standing at the brink.
Chip Goines is a former content developer for washingtonpost.com. He is a software engineer at the Harvard Library and a freelance writer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Copyright © 2014 Capitol Hill Blue
Copyright © 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved