Death in the suburbs: Why Ferguson’s tragedy is America’s story

What's happening now in Missouri isn't new, and the changing face of America is making it much more common

Topics: Dream City, Ferguson, Missouri, Racism, suburbs, America, Editor's Picks, , ,

Death in the suburbs: Why Ferguson's tragedy is America's storyA man is arrested as police try to disperse a crowd during protests in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 20, 2014. (Credit: AP/Jeff Roberson)

A man in a black helmet and gas mask, assault rifle tucked at his side, shoots a fireball of tear gas into a dark, smoky sky. On the cover of the St. Louis Post Dispatch this Tuesday, the image looked like a still from a war movie.

Its setting, however, could not have been more banal: a six-lane blacktop, flanked with Sherwin-Williams, Sam’s Club, Burger King and other fixtures of suburbia. It’s called West Florissant Avenue, but check it out on Google Streetview: It might as well be Anywhere, U.S.A.

In a nutshell, that has been the dissonant visual effect of the scenes in Ferguson, Missouri. Video-game firepower in a landscape of numb routine. Civil unrest in the suburbs.

In Madrid, students went to the festive, glowing Puerta del Sol. In Cairo, the revolution was assembled in the vast Tahrir Square, churning like a water wheel on the Nile. In Ferguson, they came to Quik Trip and McDonald’s. The former, a gas station and convenience store that angry demonstrators burned to the ground last week, subsequently became, in the words of Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, “the meeting place, the rallying point, the town square for the thousands of people descending on Ferguson each night.”

The Golden Arches, just down the road, was described by Huffington Post reporters as “an informal public square, where reporters, residents and demonstrators can rest, recharge their phones and cameras and share news of the ongoing conflict.”

It’s both a flaw and a feature of the American suburb that “town square” is only a metaphor for McDonald’s these days. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, speaking on Tuesday, said she wanted to move the Ferguson protests into a public space. But where?



That suburbia lacks a civic center is old news. James Howard Kunstler, a vitriolic critic of American suburban design, called such communities a “formless, soul-less, center-less, demoralizing mess.” But rarely, if ever, has that shortcoming been confronted in a situation of civil protest.

That changed this month. What does it mean that Ferguson’s “place of citizenship,” its agora, its public square, is a burned-out Quik Trip gas station, rechristened in spray paint as the “QT People’s Park, Liberated 8/10/14”? Among other things, it means it can be closed — and so it was last week, behind chain-link fences.

Private spaces pose other problems as protest sites. It’s not just that they can be shuttered by their owners (as McDonald’s was, before its glass windows were shattered by protesters seeking milk to relieve their eyes from tear gas). It’s also that they are transient. Aaron Renn, discussing the problem of “sacred space” in the suburbs, finds this problem in conflating private and public space. “To a much greater extent than the city,” he writes, ”suburbs rely on commercial establishments as focal points of shared experience, and by their very nature those tend to come and go.”

Revolutionary public spaces can of course be obliterated. The civic heart of Montmartre, after the 1871 communist uprising in Paris, was sacrificed to build a church of penance and admonition. But commercial establishments charged with carrying the weight of memory fare even worse: They simply fade away. The lunch counter at the Greenville Woolworth’s, for example, was reduced to rubble in 2010. Same goes for the Cavern Club, the Liverpool bar where the Beatles played nearly 300 of their first shows. So too the landmarks of West Florissant Avenue shall dissolve.

In Ferguson, we can witness two shifting currents in American life.

First, distinctions between public and private space continue to blur. In cities, parks are rented out to restaurateurs and private security guards prowl the sidewalks. City centers ban the homeless and impose curfews on the young. The naming rights to municipal infrastructure are sold to the highest bidder, eroding the concept of public ownership.

At the same time, private spaces take on public responsibilities. In this sense, Ferguson is a microcosm of a national trend. As Alexander C. Kaufman and Hunter Stuart note in describing the Ferguson McDonald’s: “Its low prices, abundance of seating, restrooms, Wi-Fi and sheer ubiquity [make] it the go-to location for people who previously may have gathered elsewhere.” It’s a bathroom for the homeless, a community center for the elderly and a library for high-school students… all for 99 cents. Public space, you might say, creates itself. It finds a way.

Second, the metrics that have long distinguished suburb from city seem less and less relevant. For decades, the rise of suburban office space has forced critics to revise the classic city-suburb relationship. In some cases, suburbs are now playing catch-up by building literal town squares. The booming suburban towns around Houston, for example, are seeking to anchor their identities with civic spaces, after the success of a town square built in 2004 in nearby Sugar Land. These spaces perform a role that McDonald’s cannot.

More importantly, Ferguson represents a new demographic wave in America: suburban poverty. As Elizabeth Kneebone notes at Brookings, the number of poor people in Ferguson doubled between 2000 and 2012. Check out the maps in her post showing the expansion of poverty in St. Louis County. It’s a much larger trend: In America’s hundred largest metros, the number of suburban neighborhoods with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher doubled between 2000 and 2012; the poor population in the suburbs grew 64 percent.

That phenomenon must necessarily change the way the way we confront poverty. But it also changes the way we see poverty. The suburban poor are far less visible than their urban counterparts. To visit the American city, whether as commuter, resident or tourist, is to be exposed to urban poverty — if only through the windshield of a car, in the headlines of a daily newspaper, or in the persona of a homeless man asleep in an alcove.

A suburban crisis? There was plenty of injustice in Ferguson before Mike Brown was killed on August 9th. But misery in the suburbs needs to be amplified to be heard.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...