Mapping Decline in a “Suburb of St. Louis”

Although I can’t add much to the conversation about the tragic events in Ferguson, MO besides frustration, I want to share a tool that’s been very helpful to make sense of the events there. The interactive tool Mapping Decline was released by Colin Gordon at the University of Iowa well before Michael Brown’s death. Though it has nothing to do directly with the flurry of news coverage, I probably learned ten times as much about the underlying issues in the community as I did from all the breaking news updates put together: the tool lays out a graphic representation of the history of white flight and its relationship with the land use policies of St. Louis county.

On one map, white and black dots denote increases (and red and orange dots decreases) in the white and black population respectively. As you can see here, Ferguson was an all white town until nearly 1970. Ferguson abuts Kinloch, which increased in black population throughout the middle of the century. The dividing line between the two is stark: for most of this period, there was undoubtedly first an official, then an unofficial racial covenant preventing blacks from moving to Ferguson. Once black dots begin to trickle over the arbitrary but inviolable municipal border, as happened in other cities and towns in decades before, the area fairly erupts with white abandonment. Usually after several decades of segregation, orange dots burst forth, indicating the abandonment of the black middle class. The chosen colors give the not altogether mistaken impression that these places burst into flames as the mass exodus of residents accelerates.

STL Mapping Decline (Kinloch)

HOLC Ratings 1940
The red trapezoid in the northwest corner is Kinloch. That’ll teach them to be black and want homes.
Source: Mapping Decline

Pair the first image in the series with the map on the right, showing the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) ratings in 1940. The red areas represent “D” ratings, dramatically restricting home loans and giving the name to the practice known as redlining.

Looking at these maps, you can’t help but start asking questions about the area. What would it be like to live in a majority black community that had not allowed blacks until 1970? What happens to the civic infrastructure of a city (especially a small suburban community dependent on the metropolitan area for economic opportunity) that loses the vast majority of its residents? Looking at the Kinloch situation, how many of Ferguson’s current residents came over the border trying to escape 80 years of government sponsored discrimination, segregation and housing disinvestment? How would these histories affect your view of civic participation and local government?

Ferguson is universally described as a “majority black suburb of St. Louis.” An article might helpfully follow up by describing it as “in north St. Louis county.” For the vast majority of stories, simple geographical facts suffice to establish the background – no attempt at explaining what life is like there, what the concerns of the populace might be, even basic historical context. As Jelani Cobb wrote in an article in the New Yorker:

The city of Ferguson, which is sixty-seven per cent black, has never had a black mayor, and five of its six city-council members are white. Only three of its fifty-three police officers are black…Country Club Hills is a smaller neighboring city that has a similar demographic history…It has a black mayor, David Powell, a black police chief, Clifton Ware, and a city council that is three-quarters African-American. Powell and Ware have worked for the past six years to transform a department that was nearly ninety per cent white to one that is evenly represented by black and white officers—an initiative they saw as essential to better community policing.

– “Bullets and Ballots” Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker, Sept 1, 2014

Cobb’s essay is not long, and is essential reading for this topic. Unfortunately, what took Cobb some 1100 words to say is, in the breaking news media, shunted aside in favor of rumor and fear mongering. The issues require careful treatment that the media has never been that good at and that Twitter and online comment sections are downright awful for. The press needs to exhibit a high level of professionalism and expertise – not only do they need the experience to provide in-depth coverage of a minority community (a community which is not well-represented in newsrooms) but also the regional knowledge to cover this specific community. Finally, we can’t ignore that this news is embedded in different contexts for different audiences, in this case often along racial lines. For the black community, this story is inseparable from a long history of discrimination and the historically paternalistic and sensationalist news coverage of their community.

The very least we must demand from media coverage is that it doesn’t make us dumber. I think we failed here. I’m sure the media will be in contact with me soon to straighten this all out but until then we’ll have to keep digging on our own.