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Ferguson, five years later

The killing of Michael Brown sparked protests against police brutality, but the city faces new, insidious problems

Jovan Cleveland exits his Southeast Ferguson apartment into the suffocating heat, clad in jean shorts and a T-shirt commemorating his brother Jorell who was murdered a few years back. 

Jovan walks past the spot where, five years ago, another black teenager was killed: Michael Brown. That day, Brown’s body laid in the sun for hours while the city formulated a response to the shooting by a white police officer. Today, there’s a memorial plaque surrounded by flowers and teddy bears. “He’d like the tears of those who grieve, to dry before the sun of happy memories that he left behind when life was done,” it reads.

Jovan continues past the memorial and tightens his backpack straps. He’s 26 years old, with a thick country accent from his early days of living in Arkansas. He’s also an eternal optimist. I ask him how he’s doing. “Wonderfully,” he says. Jovan is currently unemployed, earning what he can by watching his sister Rece’s young son. He also stays with them in their dimly lit, two-bedroom apartment. Unlike the wealthier, safer parts of Ferguson to the west, it’s a dangerous spot. But Jovan keeps his head down. “Nobody bothers me,” he says.

Today, he’s headed to a job-training center, and he’s feeling optimistic about his chances. He’s industrious and has done roofing, plumbing, and electrical work. Until recently, he earned $11 an hour assembling pizza boxes for a company located in nearby St. Louis, but the long shifts went overnight, and he quit after getting tired of waiting two hours or more for the bus to show up. People in this part of Ferguson are twice as likely as other Missouri residents to not own a car, and that’s the case for Jovan. The public transit can be spotty, and so he often finds himself on foot. 

Even that can be problematic. Today, for example, as he attempts to cross West Florissant Avenue, the area’s major thoroughfare, he is nearly crushed after a car traveling between 45–50 mph cruises through a red light behind a fire truck flashing its lights. “I’m just glad I wasn’t looking down at my phone,” he says. 

“Only difference between you and me is you got caught!”

Before entering the job-training facility, Jovan picks out his hair and straightens his clothes. The building, called the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, was built on the grounds of the QuikTrip gas station that was burned following Brown’s killing. It was the most iconic site from the Ferguson protests, with rapper Jeezy posing in front of it for his Instagram. “I had to see it for myself!! The answer is not tearing down our own neighborhoods and communities, the answer is goin to the source of the problem in numbers,” he wrote.  

“This is nice,” Jovan says, stepping inside the sparkling facilities, which opened in 2017. After he fills out paperwork, administrator Hosea Jackson describes their “Save Our Sons” job-training program, which is administered by the civil rights organization Urban League. They don’t look down on convicted felons here, Jackson notes. “Only difference between you and me is you got caught!” He shows off a room crammed full of donated suits, belts, and ties, which participants may use for job interviews. He jots down Jovan’s skills, urges him to remove any references to drugs and guns from his Facebook page (to which Jovan gives a knowing laugh), and invites him to join the class beginning in two weeks.   

Save Our Sons director J.C. Dennis says more than 700 locals have benefitted from the program, but he otherwise laments efforts to improve Southeast Ferguson since Michael Brown’s death. “A lot of people have said that they were going to do things,” he says. “A lot of ‘pillow talking,’ if you will. Then once the smoke cleared, you find that the Urban League and a few other partners are the only ones that still out here trying to make a systemic change.”

26-year-old Jovan Cleveland photographed at his sister Rece’s apartment.
26-year-old Jovan Cleveland photographed at his sister Rece’s apartment.
Photo by Michael Thomas for The Verge
Ferguson Mo.
People take pictures in front of a burned-down QuikTrip on West Florissant Avenue on August 14th, 2014.
Photo By Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call
The Urban League Ferguson Empowerment Center.
The Urban League Ferguson Empowerment Center.
Photo by Michael Thomas for The Verge

Most Americans had never heard of Ferguson before August 2014, but the protests following Brown’s killing piggybacked on the nascent Black Lives Matter coalition and helped inspire huge demonstrations in New York, Baltimore, St. Paul, and other cities.

“Ferguson” became shorthand for the national push for racial justice, even while parts of Ferguson, the city, were left in rubble. Despite the damage, a consensus soon developed that Ferguson shouldn’t just be saved. Community members, activists, government officials, and business leaders alike worked to remake it better than ever. 

“Maybe this is an opportunity,” said Reggie Jones, the mayor of adjacent municipality Dellwood, which was also hit hard by the damage. In the first three years following Brown’s death, upwards of $65 million was invested in Ferguson and the surrounding community.

Meanwhile, spurred by a Department of Justice report that shamed city officials for policies that persecute poor African American residents, Ferguson began curtailing predatory fees and fines and systemic, racial discrimination, slashing “driving while black” fines and hiring a diverse police department. The movement led to the election of a reform-minded St. Louis County prosecutor named Wesley Bell who defeated longtime incumbent Bob McCulloch, the man who announced that the officer who killed Michael Brown would not be charged.  

Even with the groundswell of activism, the reforms, and the influx of redevelopment dollars, life is not better for low-income and black Ferguson residents five years after Michael Brown’s death. In fact, by a number of measures — including murder rate, black poverty rate, and small business revenue — it’s worse, and the lack of progress can be seen most vividly on and around West Florissant Avenue. 

These trends are not just confined to Ferguson. In 2015 for the first time, US suburbs had more poor residents than the cities. But Ferguson is a particularly disturbing prototype. Having inspired people around the globe to rise up against police brutality, it has fallen prey to deeper problems, structural failures of design and planning implemented long ago. In a city oppressed by systemic racism, the infrastructure and policy — literal systems — are perhaps just as insidious. 

Photo by Michael Thomas for The Verge

Jovan’s sister goes by Rece because her mother ate lots of Reese’s Pieces while she was pregnant. She has a cautious smile, and her black-and-blond braids nearly reach her knees. She works at a nearby fast-food spot called London’s Wing House and does hair on the side, as evidenced by the piles of wigs and hair extensions in her apartment.

There’s broken wood near the doorframe — not from a break-in, but because she once had to kick the door open after locking her keys in her house, she notes with a laugh.  

She’s been living at the Canfield Green Apartments for about two years. Previously, she stayed at another low-income complex nearby called Park Ridge. “You still hear gunshots outside — at night, in the morning — but it’s actually nice here. It ain’t bother me yet. It’s better than when I stayed at Park Ridge. I got my house broken into four times in one year.”  

Thankfully, she was never home when it happened, but the intruders took just about everything: TVs, DVD players, baby clothes, even Pampers. Break-ins, unfortunately, are commonplace in Southeast Ferguson, where five low-income apartment complexes (including Canfield Green and Park Ridge) account for 25 percent of the city’s violent crimes. They’re the kinds of places where no one bothers sweeping up the gunshot shell casings. 

Rece and Jovan weren’t expecting this when their family moved to Ferguson in 2006, hoping for a fresh start. Arriving from a dangerous St. Louis neighborhood, their father bought a big house on Dade Avenue, which was just down the street from a popular urban organic farm. The backyard was as big as a football field, and the neighbors seemed nice. It was the suburbs, so it had to be safer than the city, right?

“It seemed like it was at first, the first couple years,” says Rece. “Then we started to see it for what it was.” The Clevelands thought they were leaving the high crime rate of St. Louis behind when they moved to Ferguson. But Ferguson’s reputation as a safe, quiet community was quickly becoming a thing of the past.

While Ferguson has its haves and have-nots, it is not the dystopian place portrayed in the media

Ferguson was incorporated as a city in 1894, 120 years before Michael Brown’s death. With good railway access and, later, good freeway access, it became a thriving bedroom community to St. Louis. Though a small section of the town was known as “Little Africa” — where some black families lived in log cabins — life was downright Rockwellian for most white families, and the population began to accelerate after World War II.  

“Grocery stores took orders over the telephone and delivered them later that day,” recalls longtime Ferguson resident Delores Herr Bretch in the book Ferguson: A City Remembered, looking back fondly at the idyllic 1940s of her childhood. “Service stations picked up your car, did any needed work, filled it up with gas and delivered it back to your home. Doctors made house calls, milk-men delivered and the White Bakery Company sold door-to-door. Oh, those yummy cinnamon rolls!” 

But racial animus began to rear its head. Long before Donald Trump’s presidency, in 1975, a Ferguson councilman named Carl V. Kersting wanted to build a 10-foot-tall fence along the city’s border with Kinloch, the all-black town whose school district a court had just ordered Ferguson to annex.

Ferguson mayor James Brawley scuttled the fence plan, however. And according to Ferguson, he went on to march with Kinloch mayor Clarence Lee on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.   

Ferguson, by then, had nearly 30,000 residents, but demographics were beginning to shift. One catalyst was the closing of St. Louis’ most famous housing project, Pruitt-Igoe, which housed thousands of black residents.

One thing Ferguson increasingly lacked was money

Once hailed as an architecturally forward model for utopian living, within a few years of opening, the projects had descended into squalor. In 1972, the demolition of the towers began. The Section 8 voucher program was launched soon afterward, allowing displaced people to live wherever they wanted. In part because, unlike some other suburbs, Ferguson did not have restrictions against high-density housing, black residents who wanted to live in apartment buildings began moving there in large numbers. White flight to further-flung exurbs followed, and Ferguson’s home prices began dropping. Its tax base and public school system eroded, and the crime rate rose.  

Not all of the white people left, however. The transition from mostly white to mostly black in Ferguson and surrounding municipalities has been happening for decades in fits and starts, and remnants of the old guard can still be seen. At the southern end of the West Florissant Avenue corridor lies, of all things, one of St. Louis’ most exclusive golf courses, the Norwood Hills Country Club, which once hosted the PGA Championship. Its immaculately tended, sprawling grounds offer wine tastings and tennis lessons by certified professionals, and it has almost certainly never been visited by most of the residents living in the low-income housing that surrounds the facility. 

While Ferguson has its haves and have-nots, it is not the dystopian place portrayed in the media. Most of the coverage focused on the racism of municipal officials, rarely noting that the city, overall, is progressive in many ways, with large amounts of subsidized housing as well as great parks and leafy streets of well-maintained craftsman bungalows and colonial revivals. An economically and racially diverse crowd shops in Ferguson’s downtown area, which is walkable and anchored by cute local businesses, including a bicycle shop and a brewpub. Every May, thousands jog through the streets for 5K and 10K twilight runs. 

One thing Ferguson increasingly lacked, however, was money. As the Clinton administration gave way to the Bush and Obama years, its infrastructure was aging and funds to maintain it were running out. Even with big-box retailers and a Fortune 500 company, Emerson Electric, within its city limits, because of misguided tax incentive schemes and a Missouri law designed to keep local taxes low, Ferguson received only a pittance in property taxes from large companies like Emerson, which was only contributing an estimated $68,000 annually as of 2013.

“Honestly, I’m glad I didn’t march because they were shooting rubber bullets at people.”

So it balanced its budget in the worst possible way: on the backs of the town’s poorest residents who paid excessive, debilitating fines and fees for petty offenses, including “driving while black” — offenses that could land them in jail if they didn’t pay.  

Anger at such institutionalized mistreatment by police boiled over following Michael Brown’s killing on August 9th, 2014. The next evening, attendees of his candlelight vigil expressed their outrage over his death by sacking local stores, which was soon followed by the first wave of protests, riots, looting, and burning. An even more destructive wave followed in late November, after prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s announcement that Officer Darren Wilson, who killed Brown, would not be indicted. 

Rece was nine months pregnant when Brown was killed. During the ensuing protests and riots, she hunkered down inside the Cleveland family home on Dade Avenue, giving birth just a few days later. Jovan, along with some siblings and friends, walked across town to West Florissant Avenue to see the protests, though he didn’t march. “At that time, I didn’t know if Michael Brown did something wrong, or if there was police misconduct,” he says. 

Two of his brothers got into the fray, stealing cigarillos from the QuikTrip and watching as a group of men removed an ATM from the store and attempted, unsuccessfully, to put it into their vehicle, before finally abandoning it. 

Dozens of businesses from Ferguson and surrounding municipalities were damaged or destroyed, ranging from a local bakery called Natalie’s Cakes and More, whose owner, Natalie DuBose, was filmed crying in despair after her storefront window was shattered, to chains like Walmart, which has one of its nearly 5,000 stores in Ferguson. Jovan just watched the chaos unfold. 

“I wasn’t trying to join a cause. It was like observing a car show or something,” he says. “Honestly, I’m glad I didn’t march because they were shooting rubber bullets at people.” 

Tense Ferguson, Missouri Awaits Grand Jury Findings In Shooting Of Michael Brown
St. Louis artist Damon Davis installs posters from his Push Forward Project on a boarded-up business along West Florissant Avenue on November 19th, 2014.
Photo by Scott Olson / Getty Images

Michael Brown’s killing set off a series of protests and riots that, like those in Watts and South Central Los Angeles decades before it, were expressions of long-fomenting discontent. To outside observers, it seemed to come out of nowhere. But while parts of Watts and South Central Los Angeles still struggle against the economic neglect that partly led to the riots, the people of Ferguson were determined for it to be different, to rebuild.

First came the artists who painted the plywood of boarded-up businesses with images representing protest and peace. Then, various regional organizations began dispensing clean-up money to small businesses. Finally, some of the state and country’s most powerful, well-connected politicians and businesspeople began offering substantial help, vowing to make a difference. 

The focus was on improving jobs, services, and infrastructure for the community’s underserved. Investing in Ferguson’s future, be it through dollars or volunteerism, became Missouri’s social justice cause du jour. It didn’t hurt that the economy under the nation’s first black president was rebounding. There was a sense of urgency as the area’s leaders pledged action: St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger called a West Florissant Avenue revitalization project “extraordinarily important as a symbol.” 

“I wish they had an actual grocery store around here.”

Leading the charge was Michael F. Neidorff, the CEO of health care giant Centene Corp. and then-chairman of the board for the National Urban League, which pledged to help Ferguson regain its footing. “To move ahead fairly and aggressively, that’s the best way, in my opinion, to regain the trust of the world as it comes to the greater St. Louis area,” he told St. Louis Public Radio. Neidorff went on to open a $25 million Centene call center in Ferguson and donated over $1 million toward the opening of a health center dubbed the “People’s Clinic,” which was attached to a local grocery store. Neidorff, for his efforts, was named St. Louis’ Citizen of the Year in 2017, an award sponsored by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Centene is currently the highest-ranked Fortune 500 company in Missouri; the second most highly ranked, Emerson Electric, which develops a variety of analytical instruments and systems and has over 87,000 employees, contributed more than $16 million toward revitalizing Ferguson. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz even toured the wreckage and, in 2016, followed through on a promise to open a Starbucks cafe in Ferguson. That branch and others in the St. Louis region also began selling baked goods made by Natalie’s Cakes and More.

Ferguson’s problems stemmed from the world’s most obvious problem: a lack of money. But the solution was not as simple as receiving more money. In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing, when funds began arriving in the form of investments, they failed to help the people who needed it most. The above projects were announced with great fanfare, but they were mostly located far from the low-income residents of Southeast Ferguson. The Starbucks and the Centene Call Center are near the outerbelt, miles away, and the health center is not within walking distance either. A Natalie’s Cakes and More employee recently said the bakery was no longer working with Starbucks, and a 2018 Washington Post article noted that none of the cafe’s 19 employees came from the Canfield Green area. A recent lowlight in the post-Ferguson saga occurred in April this year when Stenger resigned amid corruption charges. 

The Business of Ferguson: Four Years After the Killing of Mike Brown
Patrons make their way across the parking lot of a newly built Starbucks on the northern edge of Ferguson on May 27th, 2018.
Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post via Getty Images

The rubble has been cleared from West Florissant Avenue where the riots mainly took place, but the street looks as bad as ever, despite it being the primary lifeline for Jovan Cleveland and others in Southeast Ferguson. It’s where he catches the bus and where he makes the long trek to the nearest grocery store, but it’s treacherous: grassy medians and boulevards to the south give way to a bleak concrete expanse of wide lanes and empty parking lots. The businesses — including Pawn Center, Family Dollar, Nail Trap, Ferguson Market & Liquor, McDonald’s, Bowen’s Beauty Supply, STL Cordless, Checks Cashed, Spa Pedicure, and Crystal Nails — do little to serve residents’ everyday needs.

“I wish they had an actual grocery store around here,” Jovan says. “Or even a gas station where you could get food.”

Commuters on their way to the outerbelt race past, while those on foot cower on stretches of sidewalk that are sometimes not ADA-compliant. Crosswalks can be a half-mile apart. Those who ride their bikes are taking their lives in their hands. 

The state of West Florissant Avenue has not improved since 2014, despite all of the corporate giving, including from Emerson Electric. Harvard African and African American studies professor Walter Johnson criticizes Emerson for prioritizing philanthropy over “paying taxes and genuine civic engagement.” The company’s lush 200-acre campus, which sits near the southern end of the West Florissant Avenue corridor, is wrapped by high fences and barbed wire that make it look like a fortress. It feels less like a part of the community and more like a refuge from it.  

US-CRIME-POLICE-RACE-UNREST
Members of the Ferguson City Council listen to the concerns of citizens during a City Council meeting on March 8th, 2016.
Photo by Michael B. Thomas / AFP / Getty Images

And yet, while economic revitalization efforts have stalled, the social justice push to reduce police persecution of Ferguson’s most vulnerable citizens has been fairly effective. Ferguson had never promoted a black officer above sergeant, but following the resignation of its white police chief, Thomas Jackson, the city replaced him with Miami officer Delrish Moss. He hired more black and female officers as well as the city’s first Hispanic officer who could translate for Spanish-language residents. 

Moss emphasized the importance of “dialogue” with the community, rather than shooting first and asking questions later. No Ferguson officers have fatally shot anyone since Brown’s death, and the police outreach has extended to cutting residents’ lawns. (Moss recently returned to Florida, and Ferguson now has a new chief, also black, named Jason Armstrong.) 

Ferguson’s powerful city manager, John Shaw, and municipal judge Ronald J. Brockmeyer, who were seen as having facilitated the derided efforts to generate revenue for the city, also resigned. In the following years, fines, court fees, and traffic stops have all dropped, though the city still needs to do more to comply with its consent decree with the Justice Department. Further, the City Council now has much better African American representation. 

Jovan says that before the 2014 protests, he experienced police harassment for offenses, including “walking while black.” “I haven’t had any problem with them since,” he says now. “I think the police actually learned a lesson.”

Yet members of the Cleveland family remain upset with local police for the proliferation of crime in their neighborhood and, specifically, the unsolved murder of Jovan and Rece’s brother Jorell Cleveland in 2016. He was 19 years old, cutting through the adjacent municipality of Kinloch when he was gunned down.

“I really don’t think the detectives are putting forth the effort into the case that they should,” says their father, Joe Cleveland. “My son being gone, I don’t want it to affect my health, me worrying about it. I try not to let it take me out, too.”

“Nobody trust the police to do nothing.”

Rece believes police have neglected their duties since Brown’s killing. Some critics have dubbed this trend the “Ferguson Effect” — a term coined by former St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson — which, though it lacks much in the way of empirical evidence, hypothesizes that police around the country became less likely to enforce the law (and to apply to become police officers) since the Ferguson unrest for fear of being called out as racist, which results in a rise in crime.

Rece maintains that crime in her area got “grimy” in these years, and she speculates that police indifference could be why Jorell’s murder remains unsolved. “Nobody trust the police to do nothing,” she says. “So [nothing] get solved.”    

In the aftermath of the changes to Ferguson’s police department, many activists in the area are turning their energy toward issues like economic justice as well as “transportation equity” and “mobility justice.” Residents like Jovan don’t just need to be free of police harassment, they say; they need a local economy and infrastructure that works.

West Florissant Avenue is central to this. Yet, in addition to its lack of economic development and resources, it’s also hazardous, serving out-of-towners who zoom by — looking to shave a few minutes off of their commute — more than local residents. 

“The cars are going fast enough that when a car hits a person, the person dies,” says Cindy Mense of Trailnet, a St. Louis-based nonprofit advocate for bikers and walkers. “The infrastructure doesn’t prioritize pedestrians.”  

Encouragingly, a plan exists to utterly transform the strip, the grandest of all the Ferguson redevelopment schemes. Masterminded by a consortium of agencies, it’s a $37 million vision to not only improve infrastructure for walkers, bikers, and users of public transit, but to draw new retail and jobs. 

Highly touted by the powers-that-be of St. Louis planning, it’s also something of a Hail Mary attempt to save West Florissant Avenue, albeit one that has run into substantial funding roadblocks. Yet, it’s far from clear whether the plan will succeed or that throwing good money after bad would actually serve the people who live there.  

Photo by Michael Thomas for The Verge

In one optimistic reimagining of West Florissant Avenue, happy couples walk their puppies along wide sidewalks past flowers in bloom and tall shade trees. Sunny-day bikers glide down roads that are separated by grassy medians. “Maline Creek can be a wonderful setting for gracious and carefully designed apartments and townhouses,” it says, referring to an area that’s currently blighted by a long-abandoned car wash.  

The West Florissant Avenue Great Streets Master Plan is a 200-page document that reimagines the despotic stretch of concrete as one of the country’s prettiest thoroughfares. The plan, which began being formulated in 2013, covers about 2.6 miles of West Florissant Avenue and the surrounding areas. It seeks to turn West Florissant pedestrian-friendly, with a “smaller paved footprint that retains the same number of lanes,” and to beautify the strip “through green infrastructure, natural spaces and green linkages” as well as “capitalize on investments in transit to improve access to jobs and services and attract new business.”

“The Great Streets program is more than just roads, it’s really the whole area, and the interaction between land use and transportation,” says Larry Welty, Improvement Programs Manager at St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic, noting that the area already contains some of the region’s most heavily used bus routes. Published in late June 2014, a little over a month before the Ferguson unrest, the plan received $2 million in funding in 2015 from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, with St. Louis County adding $500,000. But this is only a tiny fraction of what is needed. It’s common for these types of plans to go unfunded, and even the most wide-eyed optimists don’t expect the money to materialize anytime soon.  

Maybe that’s for the best, says a host of critics. “They need to do it for the community and for the people who live here,” not for the benefit of corporations and large retailers, local saleswoman Maya Washington told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, echoing a common concern that locals would ultimately foot the bill for infrastructure improvements for out-of-state companies. 

Marohn calls this phenomenon the “suburban ponzi scheme”

Though the plan’s proponents insist it has the community’s interests at heart, some organizers believe the way it was put together was flawed. “I think planning, in a lot of ways, is broken in how we work in specifically low-income communities,” says Grace Kyung, a project manager at Urban Strategies, Inc. “They’re not listening to the community’s needs.” Kyung doesn’t spend as much time criticizing the details of the plan itself, as she does the way it was put together, without “engaging the entire population.”

Charles Marohn, an urban planner and founder of a nonprofit called Strong Towns, has even stronger words. “It’s lipstick on a pig, a case study in applying the wrong values — not the neighborhood values — to a place, overlaying a veneer of public engagement, and calling it a compassionate response. I’m glad it’s not been funded. It’s the wrong project.”

Marohn doesn’t pretend to have a better solution to West Florissant Avenue’s problems at hand — “I’m going to freely admit that I don’t know,” he says — but he also takes issue with the way the plan was assembled. “It is the kind of top-down, comfortable approach for people in power,” he goes on. “I think that if you took a more humble look at Ferguson, you would say that the things they suffer from is not infrastructure, it’s not due to not having a blinged-out, four-lane road through the center of town.”

Marohn, who is based in Brainerd, Minnesota, has gained a national following through his simple yet profound view that bad planning leads to poverty and decay. He says Ferguson, like many American suburbs that came of age following World War II, was doomed to fail by the very nature of its design. In these suburbs’ early days, state and federal governments subsidized their infrastructure — say, to build roads and sewer systems — leading to rapid growth. But this same infrastructure now weighs it down, as these suburbs can’t generate the money to maintain it. Marohn calls this phenomenon the “suburban Ponzi scheme,” in which suburbs like Ferguson require “ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.”

Another in a long line of ideas that will not improve life for Ferguson’s most vulnerable

One way Ferguson has tried to capture such growth is through tax increment financing (TIF), in which municipal bond money is used to improve “blighted” areas and draw new business. This helped bring a Home Depot, Walmart, and Sam’s Club to the north end of Ferguson in 1997. But Ferguson’s TIFs, like this one, have been a disaster. In 2018, $2 million from the city’s budget was used for debt service, which includes TIFs, out of a total budget of only $21 million. 

Who ultimately pays for this debt service? Ferguson’s poorest. “In Ferguson, TIF bonds are serviced by regressive taxes and fines levied on black motorists,” according to a 2015 analysis by Walter Johnson in The Atlantic. (Since this story’s publication, the use of fines as a means of public revenue has eased, only to be replaced by rising sales tax — another regressive tax on the poor.)   

The West Florissant Avenue plan, Marohn believes, is another in a long line of ideas that will not improve life for Ferguson’s most vulnerable. Rather, it will preserve the status quo for entrenched interests, those who work and shop on the north and south ends of the West Florissant corridor, and those who drive across it on their commutes. For all of its lip service to walkability and public transit, Marohn believes the plan ultimately prioritizes car traffic flow above all else. “Every other value that Ferguson residents may have is subservient to that first value,” he says. “The financial ante of owning an automobile is tremendous, especially for the poor. So when you have a neighborhood that is struggling, spending millions of dollars of auto-infrastructure is the wrong approach.” The improvements should, above all else, benefit people without cars. 

Photo by Michael Thomas for The Verge

The auto infrastructure certainly isn’t doing much for members of the Cleveland family. Jovan and Rece’s younger sister, Jovanna, is currently six months pregnant and trying to support herself. Until recently, she, like Rece, worked at London’s Wing House, which is just off West Florissant Avenue. With no car, Jovanna commuted on foot daily, a difficult mile from the Canfield Green Apartments where she was also staying. She toughed it out, however, until she was jumped and beaten — twice. “It was daytime outside too,” she says. She finally quit her job and moved out of the area, to the suburb University City. “Anywhere is cool to me, except West Florissant,” she says.

There are no simple solutions to the problems besieging the Cleveland family and other low-income residents of Southeast Ferguson. Better infrastructure, transportation, and jobs are needed. That’s why, the longer Jovan goes without work, the more he contemplates his own entrepreneurial ideas. He dreams of having his own business, an auto body store, with perhaps a daycare attached “to help take care of the people in the community,” he says. Even though he doesn’t have a car of his own, he still wants to help people with theirs. 

Marohn believes Ferguson should tap into the energy of people like Jovan, rather than squandering more money on TIFs and plans envisioned by people who don’t understand the locals’ needs. This entrepreneurial zeal can be seen all over Southeast Ferguson, often by people operating on the fringes of the law. Take the unlicensed, in-home tattoo parlors, for example, or the low-income housing complex residents who are selling essential goods, like toilet paper and socks, out of the backs of their vehicles. There are many others who have dreams of starting their own shops but are impeded by red tape and lack of capital. Someone who wants to start a business on West Florissant Avenue, for example, faces major headaches navigating a Kafka-esque zoning system, in part because the street winds through three different municipalities.

He still sees a sea of parking lots and vacant land in every direction

“The zoning’s different from one side of the street to the other,” said Cordaryl Patrick, economic recovery coordinator for the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. Economic development experts agree that the corridor needs to strip away these types of onerous zoning and business regulations.

“Ferguson, like all poor neighborhoods, is full of entrepreneurial people who want to start businesses and meet the needs of their neighbors,” Marohn says. “That’s the beauty of a market. And for some reason we believe that market principles means that Starbucks needs to come in. But someone with a dream needs to have a path to starting their own coffee shop. That’s how you build wealth, that’s how you create prosperity that you can pass on to the family. That’s how poor people become powerful.” 

In this regard, there is hope for Ferguson, as serious energy is beginning to be directed toward enabling and encouraging local entrepreneurs. Recently, the three cities along the West Florissant Avenue corridor — Ferguson, Dellwood, and Jennings — pledged to standardize zoning codes and reduce red tape. The Urban League, the organization behind the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, has purchased the pair of lots that once housed Advance Auto Parts and Fashions R Boutique, which were burned during the Michael Brown unrest. (Emerson Electric donated funds.) The Urban League hopes to use these lots for a business incubator, a commercial building that would lease storefronts to local tenants, and a sit-down restaurant. Additionally, last year, ground was broken for a Boys & Girls Clubs teen center, and earlier this month, a nonprofit group announced a series of new investments and infrastructure upgrades to the corridor, including a new clinic next door to the teen center. 

As Jovan leaves the center and heads back along West Florissant Avenue to the Canfield Green Apartments to babysit his sister’s son, he still sees a sea of parking lots and vacant land in every direction. Ever the optimist, he doesn’t see the decline — he sees opportunity. 

“They’ve got all this empty land. It’s a chance to rebuild the community,” he says. “They could build more housing, build more parks. What I would love to see is a flower maze; plant a lot of flowers over the years, and let it grow into a maze.” 

He laughs, realizing this sounds a bit fanciful and adds that better jobs — especially for young people — is what will ultimately take the crime rate down. But that’s not all: he feels that something bigger, something intangible that is hard to describe in a planning document, is necessary to unite the locals. 

“I want more life in the community,” he says, walking past Michael Brown’s memorial. Jovan turns the corner and heads back inside his sister’s apartment so she can leave for her shift.