FERGUSON • The Good Friday tornado that destroyed parts of Ferguson in 2011 quickly jumped the Mississippi River and dissipated somewhere over Illinois. A flood of insurance claims followed the storm system, helping the city rebuild.
That’s a familiar process that plays out across the region many years.
But what happens when the damage isn’t caused by an act of nature? What happens when a storm rises from raw emotions and lingers over an area, casting it as a national symbol of inequality?
Canfield Green Apartments faces this conundrum.
Many of its residents left after Michael Brown was shot in the street there seven months ago. They felt overrun once the 37-acre complex became a rallying place for hundreds of protesters. They felt unsafe when unruly people in the mix blasted off firearms.
The owner, Lipton Properties VII LP, can’t just wash its hands of the troublesome property that St. Louis County appraisers valued at $10.4 million. The local firm bought the complex in 1980 and finished a costly renovation to the 414 units in 2013.
“There are obvious reasons why it’s been a challenge,” said Randy Lipton, 55, managing partner of Lipton Properties. “Not just for our business, but all businesses.”
He wouldn’t disclose the current occupancy rate, but residents said the complex is less than half full. On a recent evening, the parking lots were nearly empty.
Despite rumors, Lipton said he has no intention of walking away from the property.
“We still believe in Canfield Green and Ferguson and the residents,” he said. “We have and had residents who are 20- and 30-year residents.”
But everything changed when a shrine sprouted in the heart of the complex.
As Ferguson purges leaders following the release March 4 of a Department of Justice report accusing local police and courts of abusing the rights of residents, the long strip of hats, orange cones and wilted stuffed animals remains in the median of Canfield Drive.
It’s the sacred memorial to Brown. Pilgrims continue to gather there even after a Justice Department report concluded Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was justified in the shooting of Brown, and that “credible” witnesses didn’t corroborate the popular story line that Brown had his hands up in surrender.
And as long as that’s the case, Canfield Green will be yoked to the Brown legacy.
Dalerin Carter, 32, said it was peaceful when he first moved in. Then the Aug. 9 shooting made Canfield Green one of the most notorious apartment complexes in the country. With the flip of a switch, there seemed to be a few thousand people outside his door. Vehicles swarmed. There was nightly gunfire.
“I don’t know if it was people getting shot. I didn’t find out,” said Carter, an analyst at a refrigeration company. “I don’t think people were taking into account that people live there.”
He said the apartment complex didn’t provide enough security. He stayed with relatives and paid for three or four nights at a hotel before finally giving up. He said more than half of the units in his building vacated around the same time.
Lipton said the apartment complex’s management was aware of the challenges tenants have faced in light of the Michael Brown shooting. As a result, he said, “we have been more accommodating in working with residents and trying to work out payment plans for them where they had fallen behind.”
His firm has also sought relief from unpaid bills through the legal system.
Filing eviction cases and taking Canfield Green residents to court for back rent isn’t unusual, according to court filings. In 2013, Lipton Properties filed 73 cases against Canfield residents. Before Brown’s death, 43 cases had been filed in 2014.
But after the shooting, an additional 50 suits were filed to finish out the year, including 24 in December alone, after a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson.
Some tenants have agreed to pay back rent and attorney fees. Some have had wages garnished. Other cases are still pending.
Carter is among tenants facing a lawsuit for breaking his lease. He said he recently paid the tab instead of fighting it.
“It wasn’t worth ruining my life for $2,100,” he said.
Chelsea Crawford, 20, a University of Missouri-St. Louis senior studying criminology, said she also moved out because she didn’t feel safe. The gunshots were unsettling. At other times, especially as more tenants fled the complex, it was extremely quiet.
Crawford said she stopped paying rent in October. She said the building she lived in had 12 units. By the time she left, only three were occupied.
“I couldn’t afford to move and pay them at the same time, and I had to get out of there,” she said.
Lipton Properties sued her for the remainder of her lease, plus court fees. She currently owes $2,900, which she said she intends to pay.
David Whitt, 35, has been a resident of Canfield Green for two years and led a group of residents who formed the Canfield Watchmen. They would film police activity around the complex.
He said he hasn’t seen anyone new move into Canfield Green in the past couple of months. He said Lipton hasn’t done enough to help residents. Apartment complex managers used to be more lenient about tenants falling behind on rent, he said, but they have cracked down since the Brown shooting.
“They went on this crusade to evict everybody in there, anybody that was late,” he said.
Lipton said management has provided more security and worked with people who, for instance, couldn’t get to work because of roadblocks from rioting and peaceful protests.
“However,” he said, “when you have residents who haven’t paid rent for three months and take the position that because of the shooting they shouldn’t have to pay the rent, that’s obviously a position that we can’t live with.”
Court records show that nearby complexes Northwinds Apartments and Park Ridge Apartments have also filed large numbers of lawsuits against tenants.
Canfield Green helped people like Shirley Scales, 65.
She said management offered to move her to a quieter and cleaner apartment near the main office. At her old unit, she said, it was stressful to walk past the shooting scene every day to get her mail.
“I wanted to be up past the murder site,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable there.”
Scales, a retiree without a car, plans to stay. Canfield Green is close to relatives and her church. And her rent is an affordable $425 a month.
Residents said the area quieted significantly during the winter months.
But there has been one constant draw: The memorial.
A search is underway for an alternative location for the memorial, so Canfield Green can return to normal, as some residents wish.
But how do you move a symbol of systematic inequality for those who regard Brown as a sacrificial lamb in a national movement?
Tourists continue to pull off the highway to visit Canfield Green.
A woman from Atlanta recently showed up to see it around the same time as a man from Wisconsin, who included the destination in a road trip. Last Wednesday, a white van full of Christian students from William Penn University in Iowa said they wanted to “experience” the shooting scene for themselves and “pay our respects.”
“We’ve made something beautiful out of something that was tragic,” Juliana Bunnell, 23, one of the students, said of the memorial.
She said it serves as a reminder that unity is needed.
Moving it to a new location seems unlikely, even though it’s right in the middle of the street.
“This is where it happened,” said Markiera Reed, 19, a freshman from Chicago with the college students. “It’s just something that can’t be changed.”
Before leaving, the group of 11 students formed a circle and prayed for unity, love and justice.
A man on a minibike soon approached, as he rode down Canfield Drive.
When he passed the shooting site, he let off on the throttle and made the sign of the cross on his head and chest before parking in a nearly empty parking lot.