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.