FERGUSON — A large electronic timer, the kind used at some sporting events, was set up to manage public comment at a recent Ferguson City Council meeting. Thirty people and a handful of camera crews waited in the audience.
But official business was delayed until Mayor James Knowles III arrived 10 minutes late and took his seat at center stage.
Nearly five years after Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in this town, Knowles, 40, seems like the only familiar face at City Hall. While policing and protesting once gave Ferguson a global audience, turnover is the word of the day now and there are fewer people watching.
Turnover of homes. Nearly half of them are rentals.
Turnover at large apartment complexes, among occupants, owners and managers.
Turnover in government. There have been so many departures that the city’s human resources director recently quit to catch her breath. The police department, working under the thumb of a federal consent decree and stiff competition from higher-paying jobs elsewhere, has dropped from 53 officers in 2014 to 39 today.
At the recent meeting, the City Council hired another new police chief — this one from Georgia — and discussed a slew of empty seats on boards and commissions.
“Is that right that the Planning Commission has three vacancies?” Knowles asked the clerk.
But Knowles rebounded in good spirits. He cracked a joke about how it was about as much fun to sit on the pension board as watching CNBC, the financial news cable network, for an hour.
Knowles is paid $350 a month to be mayor, which he notes is before taxes are taken out. Even so, some say he represents the old white guard. And if he’s still in charge, Ferguson hasn’t fully acknowledged what made the north St. Louis County municipality a global symbol of inequality.
“He wants to live in La La Land and say there is no racism here,” said Annette Jenkins, 58, a longtime African American resident and volunteer chaplain at the police department. “He’s in the bubble. It doesn’t affect him as it does the black folks.”
The Ferguson Human Rights Commission didn’t have enough leaders to make a quorum five years ago. Today, it meets regularly at the public library and has a liaison with the council. Melanie Randels, the chairwoman, said Knowles does well for some, but not in the rundown southeast side where Brown was killed.
“He always says one Ferguson, as if there is some type of unity, but there’s not,” said Randels, 33. “It’s blatant because of the lack of economic development in the Third Ward.”
Knowles was elected to the council in 2005 and mayor in 2011. He has thick skin and a loyal following.
“People are going to continue to find their straw man and beat him to death,” he said in a recent interview.
He said he’s been an active member of the community for years, as a coach, volunteer and public official. He grew up riding his Huffy bike around Ferguson. Now, he’s raising his own family here.
“People in the community of all backgrounds know,” he said. “They see me. They appreciate what I am doing. Does that mean everybody does? No. If I was universally loved, I wouldn’t be mayor of Ferguson.”
He rattled off big changes. There was one African American on the City Council in 2014; now the majority — four of six — are black. There’s a different city manager. The police department, though smaller, better reflects the makeup of the community, which is 68% African American, up from 25% in 1990. So do other city departments.
“You cannot objectively look at what’s been going on in Ferguson and say that there’s not been change, that there has not been reform,” he said.
Knowles said he’s most concerned about school performance and crime in Ferguson and the rest of North County. He said he regularly hears complaints from residents about speeding, potholes and poor housing conditions.
Since the recession, the rental housing stock has been climbing fast. A lot of owners live out of state. Knowles said the city used to keep a tighter grip on landlords, before new laws limited its ability to penalize them.
“They are letting these houses go to hell. People are furious about it,” he said, adding: “If anybody has benefited from the reforms post-Ferguson (after 2014), it’s absentee landlords.”
He said most residents are not in peril, but some feel like they are. “Their perception is oftentimes driven by antisocial behavior that they experience or these quality-of-life issues that they experience every day — whether it’s a pothole, speeding cars, people driving crazy, accidents, uninsured drivers, code violations throughout their neighborhood.”
Residents with means have left, he said, but it has nothing to do with race.
“Some of them do leave because they are tired of people at the podium, to be very frank, especially those people who challenge our ability to handle these quality-of-life issues,” he said. “It’s a real issue. If you can go live in Creve Coeur and not worry about any of that, and live a stress-free life, and have a nice school district, people who can afford that, oftentimes do. What’s amazing to me is how many people can afford that lifestyle and they stay in Ferguson.”
People like Betty Emelander.
In 1959, she and her husband bought a historic home on Miller Place, after a job at McDonnell Aircraft brought them to the St. Louis area. Once friends with everyone on the dead-end street, she said, there’s been a stark transition. Renters are replacing rooted families.
The house across the street appeared to be unoccupied. The grass was tall and plants topped the gutters.
She said a recent resident there cursed her out after she accidentally backed into a vehicle.
“I hate to say it, today, when we are going away, we make sure the house is locked,” said Emelander, 87, who is white. “I am not saying it’s black or white. It’s teenagers that think we all owe them a living. Ours is theirs. Outside of that, this is my town, and I love it.”
‘Old stuff piled up’
The shooting death of Brown, an unarmed black teen, by a young, white cop, motivated months of protests here and elsewhere. The officer, Darren Wilson, was free to go, but the city ended up being ripped by the U.S. Department of Justice, which said in one of two lengthy reports that Ferguson unfairly targeted and bolstered its budget on the backs of impoverished minorities.
With less revenue coming in, Ferguson had to make serious changes. Residents passed a few new taxes. The city became part of the St. Louis County sales tax pool. It cut reserves and services. There are fewer firefighters and one street sweeper left running for a city of 20,730 residents.
No new single-family housing permits have been issued. Nor has Moody’s Investment Services lifted Ferguson’s dismal bond rating. “I disagree with our rating, but I understand where they are coming from,” said Jeffrey Blume, 65, interim city manager and the former finance director.
Where are they coming from?
He wouldn’t answer.
Ferguson Municipal Court used to be packed. At a recent morning docket, there were only 21 people in line, including accompanied children. All but two of the defendants were African American. One of them said he was caught stealing candy and chips at Walmart. Another said she was ticketed for having a broken garage door on a home she’d bought for $15,000. Another was Antonio Williams, 23, who had dreadlocks and a beige Chevy Lumina with tinted windows parked outside.
“I wouldn’t say too much about it because driving around without tags will obviously get you pulled over,” Williams said of his experience with the court.
He carried a crumpled red folder with paperwork from several traffic tickets in the area.
“I have a whole bunch of old stuff piled up,” he said.
He said driving is worth the risk. Otherwise he’d be on the bus all day commuting for a greenhouse job in south St. Louis. He said he’s been pulled over several times this year throughout the region, including University City, Bellefontaine Neighbors and unincorporated St. Louis County. He said he noticed a difference in Ferguson police, who now wear body cameras. He said they are kinder, perhaps a little hesitant.
“They know if it goes wrong, or if anything happens, it will be spotlighted,” he said.
During a recent drive through town, Ferguson Police Lt. Harry Dilworth, who joined the department in 1993, said Ferguson wasn’t unique. He said officers all over the country and world are more focused than ever on doing their jobs well. He said no officer in Ferguson has shot a firearm at anybody since the Brown incident. Asked why not, he was offended by the question.
“It’s not our practice to wake up every morning and draw our weapon, let alone shoot and fire it,” he said.
He said the department is more transparent than ever and will continue to move forward and respond to emergencies regardless of what people think of officers.
“Sit on the sideline,” he said. “Be critical of what we do. Just get out of our way when we are out here serving our community.”
The Nesbit-Newton neighborhood has garnered some of the steady police calls for service.
Byron and Marilyn Luster bought one of the ranch homes there in 1998. They wanted a brick house and something close to family.
Though the African American couple is in southeast Ferguson, near West Florissant Avenue, their location is easily mistaken. Their post office is in Jennings. Their school district is Riverview Gardens. Dellwood and unincorporated St. Louis County are nearby.
Some Ferguson residents didn’t know the area was part of their town right after Brown was shot there on Canfield Drive. The Lusters said they’ve seen significant changes since then.
“Oh, it’s changed for the worse,” said Byron Luster, 61.
Their homeowners insurance shot up. There’s no more easy access to a gallon of milk at the now-storied QuikTrip, one of the businesses that was destroyed during protests. Other small businesses have either left or folded, including a burger joint, beauty supply, candy store and laundromat.
They said there are more rental homes and what seems like more crime. Police arrested young neighbors who invaded their house and stole a television, their son’s shoes and other items. A man was shot dead at another neighboring house that, on a recent day, had a discarded red grocery cart parked at the curb.
“We are kind of in the middle of it,” said Marilyn. “The irony of it all is that there are still some good people in the neighborhood.”
They send their 17-year-old son to private school.
“He’s very well-grounded in the sense that we keep him busy,” she said.
She wants to see improvement but was skeptical about efforts to develop the area, such as the West Florissant Avenue Great Streets Master Plan, which has been lagging behind, and other efforts.
“Why is there such a contrast?” Marilyn asked.
Downtown Ferguson has undergone a renaissance over the past two decades. Mayor Knowles said a makeover of South Florissant Road, including lighting and sidewalks, was “transformational.” He said “hero” investors, such as owners of Ferguson Brewing Co., and other businesses, helped it blossom. What’s more, the city built a new fire department, renovated the police department and relocated the municipal court there.
Knowles, recently chosen as president of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, said West Florissant Avenue is a much different corridor. The street is wide and traffic has been falling for a long time. He said he’s struggled to lure private investors there.
Even though the Urban League and Salvation Army built the $4 million Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, a 13,500-square-foot building at the former QuikTrip site, and the Boys & Girls Club is constructing another large facility, he said, the area still lacks a destination.
“If we can change the look and feel of that corridor, and change the economic development patterns of that corridor along West Florissant, hopefully we will be able to get some more people interested in it,” he said. “But right now, it’s a sea of asphalt with empty, outdated strip malls that are not part of today’s economic development trends.”
At the time Brown was shot, his grandmother lived off of West Florissant at Northwinds Apartments, a 435-unit low-income complex that is in the middle of one of the highest concentrations of subsidized housing in Missouri. T.E.H. Realty, the new owners of Northwinds and nearby Park Ridge Apartments, has been struggling with a host of issues, including management turnover.
Last summer, on his first day at the helm, Mike Kinder said he wanted to embrace the broader community and get a better grip on maintenance and delinquent rental payments.
“By Christmas, you are going to see this place shining like the top of the Chrysler building,” he said.
It’s unclear how long Kinder lasted, but a successor left last month. Families who’d paid $250 administrative fees to move in were recently denied entry for weeks because inspections weren’t requested at City Hall.
“They aren’t doing nothing for nobody,” said Mary Young, 55, a long-time resident of Northwinds.
Anthony Johnson, 36, a T.E.H. regional manager, vowed to get Northwinds on track with the right manager. “I am trying to get somebody qualified to fill this position, not just fill the spot.”
Dealing with people
A mixture of white, African American and Latino employees has helped St. Louis INK Tattoo Studio stay vibrant in the Greystone Plaza, north of Ferguson on West Florissant.
“Instead of coming in and seeing a white face or a black face, we have diversity,” said manager Mel Freeman, 44. “This crew is like family.”
During the unrest, people stood guard in front of the small business with Kevlar vests and assault weapons, because police couldn’t keep up with vandals who hit other nearby places
“There is still a lot of neighborhood tension. That was a boiling point,” Freeman said. “There’s always going to be neighborhood tension as long as our officers target individuals.”
The nearby Dollar General Store survived damage five years ago. Now it’s getting ready to close because of theft, said Delnita Brandon, 59, a cashier. She said security cameras, alarms, threat of arrest and even putting the laundry detergent up front in a case haven’t done enough to stop it.
“They are stealing like crazy,” she said of some customers.
Linell Green, 49, a bank analyst who lived nearby, said somebody ran out with a shopping cart full of merchandise when she was there a few months ago.
“It’s just a sign of the times, I guess, and the quality of life,” she said. “They can’t afford to keep their families fed, so they resort to stealing. Or, even worse, if they are fighting a drug habit, they sell things on the street.”
Employees of United Mart, a gas station in the 10300 block of West Florissant, also guarded their store five years ago. On a recent busy day, manager Mike Kanan, 28, did fist bumps with customers and spoke to them in a kind, even loving manner.
If he sees somebody take something, he said, he tells them not to steal and to just ask for the merchandise. He said it’s not worth the risk for either party. If somebody is homeless, he said, you simply need to feed them.
“The main thing you got to know is how to deal with people,” he said.
Downtown Ferguson, which is more vibrant than the other side of town, has turnover and vacancies of its own. At least there is momentum to fill them.
Cotten-Branch Mortuary and Cremation Services opened this year at the site of the old White-Mullen Mortuary, which sat empty for nine years near the busy intersection of Hereford Avenue and North Florissant Road. Diamond Cotten-Branch and her husband, Zakee Branch, said they have invested more than $60,000 into the stone building. They’ve done more than 20 funerals since February and offer a sliding scale of fees.
“We are here to help the community,” said Zakee Branch. “Whatever you can afford, that’s what we are going to do.”
The Corner Coffee House opened in 2000 on the same block. It was one of the first sparks of downtown redevelopment. It closed in late 2017. Civil Righteousness Inc., a nonprofit organization run by Mollie and Jonathan Thomas, bought the cafe in January.
They are missionaries who were drawn to visit Ferguson in 2014. The biracial couple set up a tent and sent teams of people to pray between police and protesters to help maintain peace.
They have since moved to Ferguson from Indianapolis. They bought a historic home near Vogt Elementary School, which closed in May in the reconfiguration of the Ferguson-Florissant School District. They are raising a family and hope to reopen the coffee shop in late fall.
“We wanted to help the community rebuild and be part of renewal and healing,” said Mollie, 39.
They aren’t sure what to call their new cafe. Keep the old name or come up with something new.
“Ferguson is a loyal community full of traditionalists, but the culture that we create around the space will be something new,” said Jonathan, 38. “Ferguson, five years later, has the opportunity to lead the nation in addressing and healing America’s wounds from our divided past. We hope to utilize the space for a catalyst in the way that we do community.”