Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ferguson, Missouri is not a Strong Town

A lot of people have had a lot of insights about the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. I want to highlight a few that I think are particularly important, and add a few thoughts that I hope will help focus them on our goals.

Last week, Doug Henwood had a great interview with political scientist and former Missouri state senator Jeff Smith, who expanded on his op-ed about how economically bankrupt the entire Saint Louis area, and in particular suburbs like Ferguson, have become. Combine that with municipal fragmentation and the mismatch between the city’s majority black population and its mostly white government, and you get a heavy dose of "for-profit policing," where the town relies on traffic stops for a large chunk of its revenue. It’s not hard to see how that in turn leads to the kind of anger that erupted after Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, a black resident.

First a word about "revenue generation" through traffic enforcement and other police actions. It’s gotta stop, period. Giving government officials a financial incentive to ticket and arrest people is a recipe for disaster – the kind of disaster we’ve been hearing about for days. Obviously, even if Michael Brown stole a few cigarillos (and it’s not at all clear he did), the police response was nuts and completely out of control.

That said, many politicians go too far in reacting to this abuse of the system. Many of our city council members here in New York act as though no tickets are ever warranted, even if the driver is putting lives at risk by blocking a hydrant, speeding or running a red light. The response to overzealous policing is not to make our streets a free-for-all for reckless drivers. People who want to stop "revenue generation" need an alternative way to keep us safe, whether it’s a cap on fines or replacing them with jail time.

Second, I have to point out how this shows up the "Chocolate City" triumphalism of the 1970s. Much as I love George Clinton, much as I support true local control and self-determination and Black Power, and much as I have sympathy for any separatist movement that just wants to get away from the oppressors, at this point it’s clear that when black people gained control of the governments of major cities it was at best a short-lived victory.

Cities are not self-contained little systems. They are porous regions of much larger systems, connected and interdependent with other cities, with their hinterlands and with their suburbs. When we integrated the buses, white people shifted to private cars. When we integrated the schools, white people moved their kids to "Christian Academies" and suburban districts. When black people took control of the cities, white people moved their wealth to the suburbs. Now black people are finding themselves pushed out of the Chocolate City into suburbs controlled by white people. It’s likely that one day Ferguson and other majority-black suburbs will elect black mayors, but what is really important is for everyone to have a fair say in the government of the entire region.

Chuck Marohn took this screen capture of the Google Street View of the Ferguson Market and Liquor Store.

Listening to Smith I couldn’t help thinking, as I had several times in the past week, "Ferguson isn’t a Strong Town." No, it is not. Chuck Marohn has the numbers, and you have to wonder: if the town had retained its walkable and transit infrastructure and built on it over the past sixty years instead of sprawling, how much less desperate would it be? What if the entire Saint Louis region had bucked the trend and stayed dense, walkable and transit-oriented? What would it take to make it strong again?

Finally, as Megan McArdle noted, this is part of the "Great Inversion" or the "suburbanization of poverty," the final step in the growth ponzi scheme where those of us who are aware and affluent enough move to walkable urban neighborhoods. Because we refuse to build more walkable urban neighborhoods, that displaces the poor and powerless to the inefficient, isolated, dangerous, rotting suburbs. What can those of us who care about our fellow humans do about this?

I’m guessing that as more and more people come to grips with the idea that poor black and Hispanic people are living in the suburbs now, some short-sighted person will propose an aid program where we dump massive amounts of money into the suburbs with the goal of bringing their standard of living up to the level of the wealthy inner cities, but with no attempt to make them more efficient. At that point some wiser person should point out that that’s exactly what we did for the past sixty years, and that that’s why the white people left the suburbs in the first place.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Good post. Let me make a couple of suggestions: I thought this was the most solid summation of the fundamental ineffectualness of the "change municipal borders" plan. And Pete Saunders addressed the Chocolate City issue in a long post published, ironically, shortly before Ferguson got in the news:

But what do you mean by your last sentence?