In Gov. Jay Nixon’s words, the first charge of the Ferguson Commission was “to conduct a thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study of the social and economic conditions underscored by the unrest in Ferguson.” The killing of Michael Brown was the spark that started the protests, but the fuel that sustained them was the accumulated frustrations and resentments of citizens consigned to communities that not only failed to help them get ahead but actually dragged them down. National media have generally portrayed events in Ferguson as the result of old-fashioned racism but, in fact, the underlying conditions that sparked the unrest were a toxic mix of race and place.
Where we live makes a big difference in our lives, independent of our individual characteristics. And you don’t need to have studied the impact of geography on people for over 30 years like I have to understand that. People who live in areas of concentrated poverty, for example, often pay more for groceries and lack access to fresh vegetables. The stress of living in high crime areas can damage children’s capacity to learn, leading to negative effects that can last a lifetime.
The researchers at For the Sake of All reported that children growing up in a disadvantaged ZIP code in the city of St. Louis can expect to live 18 years less than children in a privileged suburban ZIP code. Comparing individuals with similar levels of experience and education, residents of high-poverty neighborhoods are less successful in the job market, earn less, and are more likely to face a long commute to work.
Fortunately, there is something we can do about concentrated poverty. Research I conducted with Hank Webber and Molly Metzger of Washington University found that, even though concentrated poverty is growing in the region, some 35 neighborhoods have successfully rebounded. The Central West End is the most prominent example, but there are many more, including Shaw, Botanical Heights, Carondelet and Maplewood.
Is there a silver bullet that can guarantee the renewal of a community? No. But we did find one factor that was common to all rebound neighborhoods: strong civic engagement.
This makes sense. Neighborhoods need involved citizens and leaders. Neighborhood renewal is not going to succeed if outsiders come in and tell a community what to do.
So where does strong civic engagement start? Often, a community development corporation leads the way. A community development corporation is a nonprofit with a mission to improve life in a specific neighborhood, city, town, or region. The community development corporations in our region are doing tremendous work — I have partnered with many of them close up through UMSL — but many of them lack the capacity or financial resources to implement sophisticated neighborhood improvement plans. Worse, many disadvantaged neighborhoods, especially in low-income areas of suburban St. Louis County, do not even have place-based community nonprofits at all.
Most major U.S. metro areas, including Kansas City, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, have community development systems that are funded by national foundations and local foundations, who work together in partnership. Until very recently, no major local foundation has made the kind of serious investment in community development necessary to bring national foundations to the table in our region. Now, the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation has stepped into the vacuum and is working with a coalition of banks and nonprofits on a proposal, called Invest STL, to create a community development support system in St. Louis. This is a promising start.
Community development will not correct all the social injustices that drove the unrest in Ferguson. But it is an essential part of the solution. Unless we invest now in leveling the playing field of metropolitan development, distressed communities will not only drag down their residents — they will drag down the entire region.
Todd Swanstrom is a professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and co-author of "Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century."