FERGUSON – Bridgette Gordon-Billingsley sells her beauty products at the Ferguson Farmers Market. She lives in the Old Jamestown area of north St. Louis County, but she lived in Ferguson for about eight years, until 2014. Though Billingsley continues to sell her products at the market, there’s a huge change in the tone of her experience there compared with what it was before the shooting of Michael Brown (and its aftermath) took place that year.
“The market, pre-Mike Brown, was just good times. There was a lot of traffic, and it was busy,” she said. “Post Mike Brown, it wasn’t the same vibe.”
The Ferguson Farmers Market is held every Saturday on South Florissant Road, in an area less than 10 minutes away from West Florissant Avenue and, more specifically, the Canfield Green apartments, where Brown was shot on Aug. 9th, 2014. Five years later, there’s a clear divide between the two areas that lingers as they continue to rebuild what was lost five years ago.
“There are pockets of white people here that aren’t active,” Billingsley said. “It’s kind of segregated. … There’s some sort of disconnect with the black community to embrace this and feel comfortable.”
According to 2018 Census Bureau data, 68 percent of Ferguson’s population is black while less than 28 percent is white.
There’s a clear difference between South Florissant and West Florissant that can be a culture shock for some entering either street. South Florissant has expanded its growth since the 2008 recession with local businesses such as the Ferguson Bike Shop and Ferguson Brewing Company, not to mention Style-taneous Styles, adding a sense of diversity to the street. West Florissant still shows scars from the 2014 protests, from empty business fronts to dilapidated buildings.
But both are affected by what took place and its aftermath, through the number of customers walking into their store or comments made online about the entire town.
“I see comments we get on Facebook and stuff like that since then,” said Ferguson Brewing Company General Manager Robb Wiesen. “[People from] the city won’t come here quite as often just because of the reputation that Ferguson has.”
Other Ferguson residents say that although there are still issues, especially with the clear divide between the two areas, their experience outside of the protests have been mainly positive.
“It’s frustrating for the people that live here and work here,” Ferguson Bicycle Shop owner Gerry Noll said. “There are still frictions between the black community and the police department, but not neighbor-to-neighbor or person-to-person [here].”
While there may be wounds that require more time to heal on both streets in Ferguson in numerous ways, the Urban League and other corporate partners are taking action. West Florissant is still a tough sight to see five years after the protests, but the organization does not want to see it become the norm among West Florissant residents.
“If there were riots in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, you go to those communities and they’re still devastated because no one wants to invest in them,” said the Urban League’s Michael Holmes, Vice President of Workforce Development and Strategic Partnerships. “If we want to help West Florissant, then we have to bring back a tax base to West Florissant. ”
The League is looking for tenants for their $5 million shopping center, which is being built in on the sites where the QuikTrip, AutoZone, and Juanita Fashions R Boutique were before being destroyed during the protests. Their project is part of an $80 million plan to rejuvenate West Florissant, which includes a $12 million Boys & Girls club facility set to open in September and projected security.
“We have to do West Florissant [like] South Florissant,” Holmes said. “We need more clinics, we need more dental, we need to improve the lives of boys and girls and men and women of West Florissant.”
The economic impact of that street seems to be promising not only to those who are living and working on that street, but to South Florissant as well.
“I think it’s long overdue,” Weisan said. “There’s a lot of businesses developing over there, which is bringing jobs through the neighborhood. Hopefully, we will get people to also spend that money that they’re making in the community and bring them out. It’s a good change for West Florissant as well as all of Ferguson.”