What Ferguson Tells Us About Working-Class Suburbia

MLewyn's picture

Recently, Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, has received lots of attention because of a police officer's questionable decision to shoot an unarmed civilian, followed by demonstrations, followed by some even more questionable decisions by police (such as arresting journalists and tear-gassing the citizenry).   

But Ferguson is also interesting as a case study of modern suburbia.  Like many of St. Louis's northwestern suburbs, Ferguson has become majority black, and its median income is well below the statewide average.  

Conventional wisdom about demographic change in American suburbia is that it is somehow a result of gentrification, as working-class minorities are allegedly forced into suburbs by high housing costs.  But if this was true, the spread of working-class minorities into suburbia would be limited to gentrified "superstar" cities like New York and San Francisco.  

However, St. Louis is anything but gentrified: its median household income of about $32,000 is even lower than Ferguson's (let alone the statewide average of about $45,000).  Yet its working-class minorities have left the city for places like Ferguson, for (I suspect) pretty much the same reasons that upper and middle-class households have done so; even if the very poor are still stuck in the city, the somewhat-less-poor can afford to move one step up the social ladder into working-class older suburbs.  Similarly, the eastern suburbs of Cleveland have become far more racially diverse in recent years, and some suburban neighborhoods (especially in the city of East Cleveland) are as poor as most city neighborhoods. 

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