What does a map have to do with a riot? Everything, in the case of Ferguson, Mo., where a police officer shot dead a black teenager, some residents looted and rioted, and police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The map of St. Louis County, the home of Ferguson, looks like a shattered pot. It’s broken into 91 municipalities that range from small to tiny, along with clots of population in unincorporated areas. Dating as far back as the 19th century, communities set themselves up as municipalities to capture control of tax revenue from local businesses, to avoid paying taxes to support poorer neighbors, or to exclude blacks. Their behavior has ranged from somewhat parochial to flatly illegal.
The result of fragmentation today is a county whose small towns are highly stratified by both race and income. As blacks move into a town, whites move out. The tax base shrinks, and blacks feel cheated that the amenities they came for quickly disappear, says Clarence Lang, a University of Kansas historian who has studied St. Louis. Ferguson flipped from majority white to majority black so quickly that the complexion of the government and police force doesn’t match that of the population. That mismatch was a key factor in the tense race relations that contributed to the riots and, perhaps, the shooting itself.
That’s not all. Businesses choosing where to locate can play the tiny municipalities off against one another for tax incentives, prompting a race to the bottom that robs them all of desperately needed revenue. “There’s a tremendous opportunity and incentive to just poach from one municipality to another,” says University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.
There’s widespread recognition that fragmentation is holding back the economic development of greater St. Louis, but once a municipality is formed, however small, it’s exceedingly difficult to merge out of existence. Ferguson is comparatively populous at about 21,000 people. Many of St. Louis County’s postage-stamp municipalities have fewer than 1,000 people. Champ may be the smallness champ, with a 2010 population of 13, all white.
The crazy quilt that is St. Louis County government helps explain why violence broke out in Ferguson, of all the places in the country for a riot. It’s not because Ferguson is desperately poor; it’s lower-middle-income, with a healthy business district and a range of big, close-by employers, including Emerson Electric (EMR), Express Scripts (ESRX), the University of Missouri at St. Louis, Christian Hospital, and Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals (MNK).
It’s also not because civic leaders have turned their backs on Ferguson’s black population. John Gaskin III, a spokesman for the St. Louis County NAACP, is no pushover. He calls Missouri “the most racist state in the country.” But he praises the leadership of Emerson, Boeing (BA), and others. Patrick Sly, who heads Emerson Electric’s Emerson Charitable Trust, “is one of the most genuine men that you could meet in this town,” Gaskin says, while calling Danny Bradley, who runs Boeing’s diversity and inclusion program for St. Louis, “a gentleman.”
The problem, rather, is that St. Louis is locked into a pattern of inequitable development, as shown in a remarkable series of maps that Iowa’s Gordon has posted on the Web. “The Gateway City is,” he writes, “by any measure, one of the most depopulated, deindustrialized, and deeply segregated examples of American urban decay.” (Click here for a Bloomberg TV interview with Gordon and here for a series of maps showing the area’s population shift.) Fragmentation “is not the principal cause, but it certainly fed into what’s happening in Ferguson,” says Robert Cohn, author of The History and Growth of St. Louis County, Missouri.
Metro St. Louis has about the same population that it did 30 or 40 years ago, only now it’s thinly spread across 15 counties in Missouri and southern Illinois, up from just four. In an interview, Gordon says that because of Missouri’s tax laws and political fragmentation, “there is a huge incentive to build the next great mall in the cornfield because you all of a sudden capture the tax revenue from it. It’s something that everyone recognizes as an insane beggar-your-neighbor policy.” He adds: “In places like Ferguson, you not only have disinvestment and collapsing value in residential, but also in commercial. It contributes to this dramatic spatial mismatch between where they work and where they live. St. Louis is one of the worst cities for length of commute.”
For greater St. Louis, the original sin was committed in the “great divorce” of 1876, when the city of St. Louis split itself off from its hinterlands, St. Louis County. It seemed like a good idea at the time, because the city was thriving. But from that point on, the city was hemmed in. It couldn’t expand by annexation to capture people as they fanned out away from the central city. People who moved to then-rural St. Louis County, which was largely unincorporated, formed the patchwork of municipalities that exists to this day. Many of those small communities tried to keep blacks out with restrictive covenants on deeds. In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such covenants were unenforceable by states. The case, Shelley v. Kraemer, was argued for the black home buyers by Thurgood Marshall, who later became the high court’s first African American justice.
Redlining, also now illegal, was another common technique for keeping out blacks. Lenders marked out certain neighborhoods as unsuited to black buyers. Yet another map—this one created in 1937 by the Home Owners Loan Corp., a government-sponsored agency, made that egregious practice explicit. As explained in a 1980 academic article (PDF) by Kenneth Jackson of Columbia University, lenders were instructed to consult the “residential security map,” in which most of the D-rated areas were inhabited by blacks. The HOLC said houses in one neighborhood had “little or no value today, having suffered a tremendous decline in values due to the colored element now controlling the district.”
Overt racism is mostly gone, but the legacy of that less-enlightened time lives on, suffocating present-day residents. “There’s a very real sense in which resources for living a healthy, productive life aren’t evenly distributed throughout the region,” says Jason Purnell, a Washington University in St. Louis professor of public health who was the principal investigator on a study called For the Sake of All (PDF).
There are hopes in and around St. Louis County that Michael Brown’s death can galvanize the community into action. Says Purnell: “We have to change the paradigm in St. Louis from perceiving young people like Michael Brown as threats and problems and start seeing them as resources. People invest in resources. They don’t invest in problems. They try to solve problems and make them go away.”
One step in that direction is to promote regional cooperation so that poor communities and their residents have better access to good housing and schools. Some of that is happening. A year ago the economic development arms of St. Louis city and county agreed to stop competing and merge efforts. “We need to compete in a global economy as a metro region,” says Joseph Reagan, chief executive officer of the St. Louis Regional Chamber, which covers the 15-county region. “The fragmentation of our local government has been very problematic. The business community has really stepped forward and said there’s got to be a better way.”
But government moves at a glacial pace. Ideas to remerge St. Louis city and county have been floated repeatedly over the past century, but all have failed. Ronald Jackson, chairman of the St. Louis Black Leadership Roundtable, says business leaders haven’t been active enough to overcome entrenched opposition to regionalization. “The issue of regional cooperation is still contested terrain,” says Lang, the University of Kansas historian. Whites oppose it because they fear their tax bills will go up, while blacks who have managed to obtain positions of authority in government fear that a merger of communities “could easily sweep away those gains,” Lang says. “If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t put my money on that happening.”