ST. LOUIS, Missouri – The signs are everywhere, in window shops and on lamp posts.
“We are all Ferguson,” they read.
The signs are meant to signify that St. Louis stands united in working through the problems and tensions resulting from an incident in which a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man. The shooting touched off a series of national and community confrontations about race, poverty, violence and justice.
The signs want to speak to that, but they also could be read another way – as an acknowledgment of the responsibility the entire community has in creating the dynamics that led both to Brown’s death and the angry reaction that followed.
We can start by understanding the geography. Most news accounts describe Ferguson, where the shooting took place, as a suburb of St. Louis. That’s accurate without really being true.
The city of St. Louis proper is fairly small – about 350,000 people live within the city limits in a metropolitan area of nearly 3 million residents. Much of the growth in the area has come in the suburbs to the west of the city – what the natives call “West County” – and those former suburbs have come to resemble city neighborhoods more than suburbs.
I lived in St. Louis as a young man. I loved the city then and love it still, but it can be a troubled place.
When I lived there as a struggling graduate student and freelance writer in the early 1980s, St. Louis had one of the highest violent crime rates in the country. The crimes covered the spectrum. Organized crime settled some scores with a series of high-profile car bombings. And there were the usual muggings and murders.
One memorable day in my two years there, the police pulled a dead body out of a dumpster in the alley behind my apartment building in the city’s Central West End.
St. Louis came to be marked by divisions large and small. It was and is in many ways a segregated place.
The community-wide dividing line was and is Delmar Boulevard, which was home to several bars, pizza places and bookstores my fellow grad students and I gravitated toward 30 years ago – and which since has become quite trendy.
The parts of the St. Louis metropolitan area north of Delmar, such as Ferguson, tend to be overwhelmingly black. The parts south of Delmar are two-thirds white.
Money honors the line, too. Households south of Delmar on average make $25,000 more per year than those that are north of the street.
But the divisions also are smaller.
Many of the houses in St. Louis’s older neighborhoods were beautiful old 19th-century stone and brick structures that cried out for gentrification. When I first moved there, many of those homes were either abandoned or dilapidated.
To foster the reclamation process, St. Louis planners were among the pioneers in creating gated communities. They sealed off streets and made traveling through neighborhoods by car or foot the equivalent of a large-scale broken-field football run, one zigzag after another.
When I walk through the area now where I once lived and roamed, I see a series of lovingly restored old homes, many of them with expensive European-made cars parked out front, locked behind iron gates that make the houses look as stately and isolated as medieval forts surrounded by moats.
These measures, of course, didn’t end the divisions in the community. They just defined them more clearly.
In that way, St. Louis – an American city older than the nation’s founding and one that is poised on the edge of east and west, north and south – is an almost perfect emblem of the country itself.
It serves as a reminder and a cautionary note that we Americans can’t wall ourselves off or run from the problems that afflict us. Those problems will keep finding us until we face them.
We are all Ferguson.
Yeah, maybe we are.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.