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Ferguson Revisited: Residents reflect on how their town has changed

A young man carries a child past boarded up businesses along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
A young man carries a child past boarded up businesses along West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson.

There are still scars in Ferguson.

One year after the protests that attracted the world’s attention, many of the damaged stores along West Florissant Road are still boarded up; trust between residents and police has frayed throughout the city; and private relationships have been strained by differences of opinion.

There are also some bandages: Municipal elections have pulled in new city leaders; the police force has committed to reform under the close eye of the U.S. Department of Justice; and the burned-out QuikTrip gas station has been cleared out, making room for a new work training center.    

A vendor sells vegetables from Ferguson's EarthDance Farms at a weekly farmer's market.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
A vendor sells vegetables from Ferguson's EarthDance Farms at a weekly farmer's market.

In August and September of 2014, Ferguson became an international buzzword for police brutality, systems that exploit the poor, and an entire country’s struggle to confront the legacy of racism in America. As the story played out in television sound-bytes, photos on Twitter and conversations around dinner tables, one theme seemed clear: This city is divided, and it’s divided along racial lines.

But when St. Louis Public Radio started talking to people who live in Fergsuon, the picture wasn't so simple. Many residents felt that characterization was accurate; Ferguson was a city divided, and it was a story that desperately needed to be told. Others barely recognized the city they saw on the news every night.

My colleague Emanuele Berry and I conducted a series of interviews with Ferguson residents at that time, hoping to better understand the small suburb that had been so quickly thrust into the national spotlight. But as news continued to break, other projects took precedence, and the plans were set on the back burner.  

In all honesty, this is a story we didn’t finish. But at the same time, it’s a story we never forgot. One year later, we called those residents back to see if their impressions and ideas have evolved. Here are some of their stories.  

Two parallel streets bisecting, South Florissant Rd (left) and West Florissant Ave (right) saw most of the action last year.
Credit Mapbox, Open Street Map
Two parallel streets bisecting, South Florissant Road (left) and West Florissant Avenue (right) saw most of the action last year.

A tale of two Florissants  

Most protests in Ferguson itself took place on one of two of the main streets that bisect Ferguson. Running parallel, and about a mile apart, they could have represented the two worlds experienced by residents here: West Florissant Avenue and South Florissant Road. 

West Florissant, which actually sits east of its neighbor of a similar name, is a mile-long strip of stores, barber shops and fast food restaurants close to the scene where Michael Brown was shot and killed on Aug. 9 of last year. Most homes in this part of town are apartments or modest, single-story houses with well-tended front yards. Residents we met here mentioned feeling constantly under the watch of the city’s police officers to the point of harassment.

“It seems to be happening more and more, we’re just trying to figure out why. Why are the police against us, and our young black males and young black females? We’ve got kids we’re trying to raise,” said LaCresia Lane in 2014, as she and a friend took an evening walk near the Canfield Green Apartments. 

The night was hot, sticky and heavy with mosquitoes. Lane’s 3-year-old son, Charles, pedaled ahead on his tricycle. Lane said that in a calmer time, Charles said he wanted to be a police officer when he grew up. After the death of Michael Brown, her son became scared of men in uniform.

Charles Lane, 3, makes faces for the camera during an evening walk in September of 2014.
Credit Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio
Charles Lane, 3, makes faces for the camera during an evening walk in September of 2014.

When I reached her this year by phone, Lane said her feelings today are the same. She said she’s seen more community events and efforts to bring residents together in Ferguson, but it will take many more years of change before she feels safe as her son grows up.

“Our kids are being physically, emotionally abused. Right now, we as a nation are trying to figure out why. It’s kind of scary when you have kids and stuff like this is happening every day,” Lane said.

About 21,000 people live in Ferguson. According to the Census, two-thirds are African American, and thirty percent are white. The rest are multiracial, or identify with another group. Median household income is $38,700; not affluent, although the homes in some parts of the city certainly seem expensive. 

South Florissant Road  is a line of local restaurants, salons and retail stores, nestled inside revamped historic buildings. The neighborhoods nearby have older homes crowned by tall trees. For months, the Ferguson Police Department’s new building on South Florissant attracted frequent protests and a small group who kept a permanent vigil outside. 

One sunny morning last August, I ducked into a coffee shop on South Florissant and met Susan Ankenbrand, a former city councilwoman selling “I Love Ferguson” t-shirts from a table in a back room.

Among other items, the new store will sell t-shirts with the "I Love Ferguson" logo in a variety of colors.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio
T-shirts with the "I Love Ferguson" logo are laid out in a coffee shop on South Florissant Rd., in August of 2014.

Ankenbrand, who is white, was appalled at the way her hometown had been represented publicly. She said she moved her family to Ferguson in the 1980s, specifically because she wanted her sons to grow up in an integrated place. At the time, a history of segregation and discriminatory zoning practices meant the St. Louis region had very few towns with significant populations of both black and white residents. Ferguson was an outlier. It was affordable, had well-funded schools and was racially diverse.

“This community has always valued diversity. I think that’s why to see this community held up as this racist area is so painful,” Ankenbrand told me then.

Today, Ankenbrand still volunteers regularly to sell those t-shirts, although now it’s an array of souvenir hats, cups and sweatshirts sold out of a new permanent location. Like many in Ferguson, she and her husband have spent the year attending public meetings and discussion groups, getting to know their neighborsand participating in community volunteer efforts.

“I think this year, has been a time not only for the community to do some self-examination. I’ve learned that I can never take my values and my beliefs for granted. Mine have really been tested this year. I’ve been more aware of my own shortcomings when it comes to understanding others, both black and white,” Ankenbrand said.

Next year, she said, has to be better.

The town the world was watching

BreaDora, Marcus, theirBreaDora, Marcus, Jasmine and their mother Irma sit in their living room on August 17, 2014.  sister and their mother Irma in their living room Sunday night.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Irma Moore opened her home to two St. Louis Public Radio reporters during a violent clash between protesters and police in August of 2014. Irma's children--Breadora Moore, Marcus Stewart, and Jasmine Stewart--sit beside her on the couch.

Last August, the light of a TV streaming in scenes from the streets filled the living room of Irma Moore, who lives on a cul-de-sac near West Florissant. One evening when protesters were met with a heavy crackdown by police, Moore and her five children huddled together on the couch, wincing at the sounds of gunshots and tear gas from West Florissant.

For the Moores, last August was terrifying. Moore’s husband and her eldest son, Marcus, took turns staying awake through the night, guarding the front door with a shotgun and a baseball bat when 9-1-1 dispatchers refused to send help. The smell of tear gas seeped in through the air conditioner, and her youngest children panicked when they heard helicopters at night. Familiar stores and buildings burned within sight of their front porch.

“I understand that they’re trying to make it for a cause, but it really isn’t. It’s just like, scattered ignorance. All our places are ruined because they’ve been rioting and everything. And there’s innocent people out there that [the police] are firing at,” Marcus told me that night.

On a recent Saturday, Irma Moore and her daughters BreaDora, 11, Lydia, 6, Laura, 4 and Elizabeth, 7 months, visited a longtime Ferguson staple for ice cream cones.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
On a recent Saturday, Irma Moore and her daughters BreaDora, 11, Lydia, 6, Laura, 4 and Elizabeth, 7 months, visited a longtime Ferguson staple for ice cream cones.

But a year later, 16-year-old Marcus said his perspective on riots has changed.  

“People get angry. With anger, there’s action,” he said. “I’ve learned to be more accepting to their anger, but hopefully I can point their anger in a different direction, if something like Ferguson were to happen again.”

This year, Marcus and a group of friends helped organize a student walk-out from their school, and marched to the Ferguson Police Station. He said it finally feels like the world has opened its eyes to the way people of color are treated by many members of law enforcement.

What the world might not know, he said, is that last year’s tragedy created a tightly knit community in Ferguson. He likes it that way.

“I want them to know that we are not what the media portrays us as. We are not savages, we are not all evil people, we are not thieves, we are not criminals,” Marcus said. “We are people, just like anybody else in the world. We are people.”

Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Seen on West Florissant Rd.