The St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is best known as the site of the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, the spark that took the Black Lives Matter movement nationwide. In the aftermath, it emerged that Ferguson, a city of 21,000 people, relied on fines for one-fifth of its revenue, with 86% of the drivers stopped Black. According to a Department of Justice study released in 2015, the town had actually planned its budget to double the proportion of revenue coming from fines.
Where did this come from? Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the U.S. sets out to answer that question, casting the St. Louis area as a microcosm of how the grand Jeffersonian-democratic vision deteriorated into racism and rule by the rich.
Johnson hints at what might have been. After Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Confederate sympathizers formed an illegal encampment in St. Louis. (Missouri was a slave state.) In response, 1,400 volunteers organized themselves into 16 companies to surround and disarm the encampment. He covers the civil-rights era’s activists and their tactics in great detail, such as Percy Green and the women employees of the Funston Nut company who demanded and won the integration of the city’s major employers.
An entire chapter is devoted to the cross-racial alliance that staged a five-day general strike in 1877. It was led by German immigrants who had fled to the U.S. after the failed 1848 revolution. Among these “Forty-Eighters” were Carl Schurz, a lawyer, Civil War major general, and U.S. Senator, and Franz Sigel, another Union general who recruited an entire battalion of German-born soldiers from St. Louis. Another 48er was Joseph Weydemeyer, who published the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels both in Germany and the U.S. In the 1870s, he led the St. Louis County board, and advocated for the eight-hour day as a way to “clear the ground for the formation of a real workingman’s party.”
It was another event in 1877, what Johnson calls “the great divorce,” that would shape the area’s future: The city of St. Louis seceded from St. Louis County. Ironically, the first move was made by the Union supporters in state government, when they amended the state constitution to subject city property owners to county tax assessments. City dwellers then voted to secede. One historian said the result was the creation of “local nobility, that controlled everything worth owning and bought aldermen like cattle.” W.E.B. du Bois called it the dictatorship of property.
Over the next century, St. Louis County set about incorporating 90 different towns, each with their own schools, parks, city halls, fire and police departments. They were overwhelmingly white, often by design, until the late 20th century: Ferguson went from being 99% white in 1970 to 67% Black in 2010.
In the city itself, racial covenants restricting who property could be sold to created 400 artificially white neighborhoods, until 1948 when they were struck down by the Supreme Court. In 1939, 37 blocks along the riverfront downtown were torn down, and 200 mostly Black-occupied apartment buildings were demolished. The area remained largely vacant until the Gateway National Arch was built in 1965.
The Pruitt-Igoe public housing development, built in 1954 on vacant land on the near North Side, was ordered to be desegregated in 1955. Its 33 eleven-story towers, however, were built with watered cement and so poorly maintained that they were dynamited in 1972.
Of equally devastating impact was the closing of the Homer G. Phillips Hospital, the only hospital on the overwhelmingly Black North Side, in 1979. Comedian Dick Gregory, who was born there, led a 25-hour demonstration against the closing, and was one of the 70 people arrested. As doctors and other hospital staff were arriving for the morning shift that August, 150 officers in riot gear showed up and began transferring out patients, as a helicopter hovered overhead and canine units waited nearby.
The city used a $7 million budget shortfall to justify closing the hospital.
The next nail in the coffin for public finances was the Hancock Amendment to the state constitution, approved by voters in 1980. Pushed by an organization called the Taxpayer Survival Association, it echoed California’s 1978 Proposition 13 initiative. By requiring that tax increases be subject to a local referendum, it made property-tax increases virtually impossible.
That forced local governments to turn to gimmicks like TIFs, tax increment financing. This scheme allows cities to sell bonds on behalf of developers, which are supposed to be repaid by tax revenues from the development. A mere declaration that an area is “blighted” allows the state to condemn property and turn it over for private projects. The government comes out ahead if the development is profitable enough to pay taxes that cover the bonds. If not, its budget is balanced on the backs of schoolchildren.
Ferguson, meanwhile, chose to impose property taxes on the Emerson Electric company’s headquarters there that were so low Emerson paid just $68,000 in 2013—a year it brought in $24 billion in revenue, and the city issued $2.6 million worth of traffic tickets.
Johnson tries to sound a positive note in the epilogue. He cites the Art House Collective on the North Side, which provides meals plus mental-health services, sweet-potato gardeners who are incubating several businesses, and the volunteer-run Griot Museum of Black History and Culture, which features wax figures of local civil-rights heroes Macler Shepard and Percy Green.
Encouraging signs though these are, I couldn’t help but think of Milwaukee, which in the early 20th century had three Socialist mayors who knew not to get into bed with banks.
In words that mirror the experience of St. Louis, Dan Hoan, mayor of Milwaukee from 1916 to 1940, recalled, “Taxpayer Leagues sprang up like weeds, often headed by semi-racketeers, business failures, political misfits, or those who aspire to public office. Too well did I know the duplicity of the banking fraternity. With a covetous eye, they prayed for the day they might again seize the municipal purse and with it, municipal policy.”
The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the U.S.
By Walter Johnson
Basic Books, 2020, 528 pages
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