The map of St. Louis County, the home of Ferguson, looks like a shattered pot. It’s broken into 91 municipalities that range from small to tiny, along with clots of population in unincorporated areas. Dating as far back as the 19th century, communities set themselves up as municipalities to capture control of tax revenue from local businesses, to avoid paying taxes to support poorer neighbors, or to exclude blacks. Their behavior has ranged from somewhat parochial to flatly illegal.This is pretty typical for northern metropolitan areas. I actually anticipated that the City of St. Louis was split out of St. Louis County in the mid-20th century precisely because it became a majority-black community, but that wasn't the case:
The result of fragmentation today is a county whose small towns are highly stratified by both race and income. As blacks move into a town, whites move out. The tax base shrinks, and blacks feel cheated that the amenities they came for quickly disappear, says Clarence Lang, a University of Kansas historian who has studied St. Louis. Ferguson flipped from majority white to majority black so quickly that the complexion of the government and police force doesn’t match that of the population. That mismatch was a key factor in the tense race relations that contributed to the riots and, perhaps, the shooting itself.
That’s not all. Businesses choosing where to locate can play the tiny municipalities off against one another for tax incentives, prompting a race to the bottom that robs them all of desperately needed revenue. “There’s a tremendous opportunity and incentive to just poach from one municipality to another,” says University of Iowa historian Colin Gordon, author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.
There’s widespread recognition that fragmentation is holding back the economic development of greater St. Louis, but once a municipality is formed, however small, it’s exceedingly difficult to merge out of existence. Ferguson is comparatively populous at about 21,000 people. Many of St. Louis County’s postage-stamp municipalities have fewer than 1,000 people. Champ may be the smallness champ, with a 2010 population of 13, all white......Metro St. Louis has about the same population that it did 30 or 40 years ago, only now it’s thinly spread across 15 counties in Missouri and southern Illinois, up from just four.
For greater St. Louis, the original sin was committed in the “great divorce” of 1876, when the city of St. Louis split itself off from its hinterlands, St. Louis County. It seemed like a good idea at the time, because the city was thriving. But from that point on, the city was hemmed in. It couldn’t expand by annexation to capture people as they fanned out away from the central city. People who moved to then-rural St. Louis County, which was largely unincorporated, formed the patchwork of municipalities that exists to this day. Many of those small communities tried to keep blacks out with restrictive covenants on deeds. In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such covenants were unenforceable by states. The case, Shelley v. Kraemer, was argued for the black home buyers by Thurgood Marshall, who later became the high court’s first African American justice.The article does a good job of highlighting how white flight and suburban sprawl hollowed out the great cities of the north and created the massive segregation by race and wealth which we find today. This is an issue which has loomed large for 50 years, and looks to loom even larger going forward. It is also one of the most politically vexing issues to deal with, and the events over the last week in Ferguson will further poison the well. However, if we want this country to move forward, it will have to be addressed in the next generation, no matter how difficult that is.