The dream of “One St. Louis” has been the aspiration of civic and business leaders for decades. Ever since the negative effects of the “Great Divorce” of 1876 began to show, the powerful elites have been looking for a solution to reunite St. Louis city and county.
As early as 1973 when Barbara R. Williams of The Rand Corporation prepared a report called “St. Louis: A City and Its Suburbs” for the National Science Foundation, it was clear that the region’s divisions were going to take a devastating toll in the decades to come.
After the city’s rapid decline in white population (nearly 1 in 3 white people left the city between 1960 and 1970) and lost jobs and economic activity, there were three possible futures for the city of St. Louis, the Rand report said:
- Continued decline.
- Stabilization in a new role as an increasingly black suburb as economic and political power followed the white population to St. Louis County.
- A “return to a former role as the center of economic activity in the metropolitan area.”
“As things stand,” the report stated, “the most likely prognosis is for continued decline.”
The next 45 years proved they were not wrong.
But even as the city declined — and as shown in the last census, even as that decline spread to the county — civic and business leaders still spoke of “One St. Louis,” united in identity, economic strategy and political agenda.
That is, until August 2014.
After 28-year-old Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. on Aug. 9, 2014, the attention of the world turned to St. Louis. And as the world looked at the systemic racism and predatory practices that led to the resulting unrest that occurred throughout the region, including St. Louis city, those same civic, business and political leaders were just fine with letting these be known as Ferguson issues.
When the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama and then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced that they would be investigating policing practices that targeted black citizens, those “One St. Louis” voices went silent. Even our federal representatives were happy to confine the DOJ investigation to tiny Ferguson, Mo., population: 20,000.
But it’s not just Ferguson. It never was.
Throughout the month of August, our reporters will be taking a closer look at the issues, injustices, culture and systems that have all been rolled up in one word: “Ferguson.” But “Ferguson,” we all know, is not just Ferguson.
Policing, discriminatory city planning, the unprecedented targeting of newly elected black prosecutors in the city and the county by both the police union and the judiciary – these are just few areas we will be probing in a series we call “More Than Ferguson” in The NorthSider and SouthSider newspapers, as well as our website, MetroSTL.com.
As Aug. 9 brings the 5-year anniversary of that fateful day when Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown and law enforcement drew a blue line in the sand, we remain just as divided today. Still not enough empathy for each other. Still not able to see the St. Louis beyond our own bubbles. Still unwilling to serve the needs of the many before the wants of the privileged few.
Can we solve these problems? Of course. But it is critical that we agree on the problems, or even whether they actually exist, before we can even begin to agree on solutions. While all previous attempts to reunite St. Louis have focused on economics and politics, boundaries and positions, they have ignored our most pronounced divisions: culture, race and class.
The various reports and commissions over the decades have prescribed many remedies for what ails us. But it’s hard to cure a patient until they actually want to be cured.
On this anniversary, as the national media pauses momentarily from the 24-hour reality TV show playing out in Washington, to revisit St. Louis’ problems – which they will probably limit to our tiny neighbor of Ferguson, Mo. – they will ask many people: “What has changed since 2014?”
The answer to that question is “not enough.” But the better question, the real question for those of us left here in St. Louis city, county and beyond, is, “Are we finally ready to change?”
I hope so. And our team of dedicated journalists will continue to put before you the facts. What you do with them is up to you.
Because it’s more than Ferguson that needs to change.