war in palestine, war in ferguson
st. louis is close to home, my previous home being carbondale, two hours south, and we used to go through ferguson regularly on our way to lambert airport, or anywhere really, since we were usually going north. it's got a history. it's one of these little enclaves that dropped out of st. louis intentionally. why wouldn't a neighborhood like this just go on being part of st. louis? because it's easier to have your own police and fire, have your own utilities, set up a whole new city hall and administration, etc.? no, so far, those are not plausible reasons. i suspect that at one time ferguson was all white, whereas st. louis was more multi-racial, higher taxes, etc. the white folks of ferguson thought they could do it better than the city. dozens of other enclaves made the same decision. all put together, the number of towns that dropped out of st. louis itself, and into st. louis county, made st. louis city simply a carved up piece of what's left, what used to be the city. and then, with its city population so low, it started winning the crime statistics prize. high crime, low population, high percentage, st. louis won it all a few times.
the airport itself, i'm not sure whether it was in the city or whether it too dropped out. but soon it too was engulfed by city problems moving westward from the ferguson area. city problems we could take for a euphemism, for which people often use words like ghetto, inner-city, etc. motels had bars on their office windows. people looked at you funny if you were in the streets after dark, like trying to get to the rent-a-car lot from the airport. this was the st. louis i knew. i dropped my son off at the airport (he was going to france) - when he found out his international flight had been delayed by an entire day. he stayed holed up in a cheap airport hotel (i didn't find out until well after i'd driven two hours home) - and did nothing but study french. after looking around, he was almost too nervous to step out for a hamburger, although he eventually did. you could feel trouble in the air. the hotel was the kind of place that, cheap enough, had all kinds of activity outside the usual airport variety.
in saint louis the word beach is not so much a euphemism, as an ironic word; the city has no beaches and certainly none on the river, which you'd have to be a fool to swim in. but there are two, times beach and pontoon beach, both near the river, that are two of the worst toxic waste dumps in the history of the u.s. dumping toxic waste is an old tradition; it's an industrial city, and it's had a number of steel mills and other industrial plants that have been at it for years. one of the worst is called mallinckrodt, which apparently dumped toxic wastes in creeks in north saint louis way back in the forties, and now history is catching up to them, because people are coming up with brain cancers and they are so heavily localized that there's no doubt there's a connection. my father worked for mallinckrodt for a couple of years in the fifties; as a chemical engineer who had an environmental conscience, he probably wasn't happy there, but i have no idea what he actually did. one thing that was true was that very few of those chemical companies had any conscience at all, when it came to putting toxic things in the area. much of it ended up in the mississippi, where it became new orleans' problem.
from lambert airport in the northwest part of town, you can take seventy, the main interstate from kansas city all the way back east through indianapolis, and it will drop you at the arch where you can take the main bridges over to illinois except when there's heavy traffic, in which case you might take the ring roads and avoid both the ferguson area, and the main bridges which tend to get bottled up. to those of us who don't know the city well it's a huge temptation to just go around, but usually i didn't do it, mostly because it didn't save much time unless the conditions were really extreme downtown. but on the way into town, you pass through the north side, and i'd often stop at exits like lucas-hunt, jennings road or hanley. i didn't really know where i was; i have very little idea of true saint louis geography. even now it's news to me that ferguson is actually north of this road; that the north side, which seventy bisects, includes so much territory. it's an old city; the ozarks sneak up on it from the west, so it's hilly and very green, and the roads turn around a lot and there are florissant avenues everywhere. there are old french names like laclede and soulard, and a history of the french making it an outpost in the fur trade, and trading up and down the river.
the french era, though, was in the seventeen hundreds, and around the time of the great earthquakes, which were in 1811 and 1812. the french had their heyday, and left a pretty and charming character in the river towns that they liked, such as saint louis, cape girardeau, and new orleans. but by the civil war missouri was as embroiled in racial division as any place. black folks were free across the river in illinois, and alton, illinois was an abolitionist center, but missourians would cross the river and capture freed slaves, and bring them back. a huge race riot in east saint louis, illinois in 1917 was the worst in the nation, and its effects i think are still being felt today, though the facts were, even at that time, it was mostly a massacre of black folks at the hands of violent, very afraid white folks - there could be a pattern here. in the modern era, we have mostly a story of the established white families fleeing to the outer edges of the county, or, in illinois, up on the ridge, and the inner city being increasingly boarded up, though still pretty, older houses that are vacant. the city has lost population dramatically; people go elsewhere looking for work. the budweiser empire distinctly abandoned the city, when it sold out to a belgian company that had no loyalty to the area. the lack of jobs made for continual, and worsening, hardship for everyone.
my friends keep coming up with articles about the militarization of police forces; all of a sudden these police have major weapons and look more and more like the army invading its own people. that, and they tell about how black men live in an entirely different world than the rest of us, and are constantly targets, suspected, blamed, beaten. this is true not only in saint louis, or ferguson, i'm sure, but ferguson is quickly coming to represent the problem. saint louis friends of mine are horrified at how it's come to just be a 'war zone'...
a friend of mine, world traveler, american but raised in the middle east, passed through saint louis the other day based on curiosity about the arch as an architectural marvel. i told him, yes, it's a marvel, but you get way up there, and all you see is saint louis, which as i said is pretty but mostly only at the brick street-level, and of course the river, which is wide and dramatic in its own way. watch out for the airport, everyone said, but if you just go straight downtown, it's not really dangerous. that, of course, is easy to say, i don't guarantee anything. i told him about cahokia mounds, which is near east saint louis. it was a city, biggest in north america for a thousand years, but totally abandoned by the time the first french arrived, and the cahokia indians, who it was named for, freely admitted that the mounds were already there, when they arrived. so, we call them cahokia, but really they are the center of an empire that was huge, in its time, and is better named as the mound people. there's a little confusion, in other words; nobody really knows that much about the mound people. we only discovered that it was a city, when we were making interstates, back in the fifties, and so many of them had to go right down there by east saint louis.
saint louis people have an unusual accent; for example, they pronounce the vowel of their own city name, immediately following the l, as the vowel in bush rather than the vowel in toot; it took me years to hear it. but by far the most unusual thing they do is refer to what we would call dumb hicks, as hoosiers. now to the rest of us, hoosiers refers only to people from indiana, and isn't necessarily derogatory, since there's nothing unusual about indiana unless you have some reason to find it there. but to saint louisians, it's a much older story, and those hoosiers where white, mean, poor, and maybe some other stuff, though i never quite got how they really meant it. after all, it was the people who weren't hoosiers who were using it, and for the most part, i count them as mostly white, i never heard any black folks using the word. in fact the whole time i was around the city, i had nothing but polite, and normal, interactions with the black folks, who for the most part were always working the lower-paying jobs, airport shuttle, hotel bellboy, mcdonald's server, etc.
some conflicts, you can say, come from vast, deep historical hatreds, like that between israel and the palestinians; because people won't compromise, or try to understand each other, they are doomed to hatred forever. but i don't see the racial situation in saint louis that way. in ferguson you have white folks, sure, who dominate the police by a 50 to 3 margin, and who don't want to give up a good job. you have the black folks who live there, who by and large are working people, i'm sure. you have people, the media and the world, who tend to see these things racially. everything is an excuse to use racial categories, the white folks, or the israelis as the case may be, have all these guns and just kill people indiscriminately. i think the majority of them want to just live there, be left to go their own way, not suspected, tortured or killed just for their color, and they have no problem with folks of a different race; they'd do a better job at managing peace, if people weren't carrying around these huge weapons, and shouting at them. the wartime environment tends to be hard on the ones who are just trying to work things out.