St. Louis, with Delmar Boulevard and the northern suburb of Ferguson in yellow.
St. Louis, with Delmar Boulevard and the northern suburb of Ferguson in yellow.

My family is from St. Louis, and by some quirk of fate, all the houses we’ve lived in since the early 1800s are still standing. Every few years, typically when visitors are in town, we pile into the car for what my partner calls, only half-jokingly, the “Roots Tour.” The itinerary begins with the oldest house, an Italianate hold-out on the edge of the downtown business district. The city radiates outward from there like an old-fashioned lady’s fan, bounded only by the Mississippi River. But my family consistently moved due west, further so with each house and each generation, along a thin ribbon of neighborhoods where the rich, big businesses, top universities, cultural institutions, and professional sports venues are settled.

The east-to-west stretch of affluence has no collective name, but it divides the St. Louis metro area like the Great Wall of China. Middle-class whites live to the south, poorer blacks to the north. And while the southern edge is porous, the northern boundary is definitive: Delmar Boulevard. It was well north of Delmar, the inner-ring northern suburb of Ferguson, that on Aug. 9 a white police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black teen named Michael Brown, sparking sometimes-violent local protests and an international debate about race and segregation in the United States.

According to the Washington University Political Review, “Residents south of Delmar are 73% white, while residents north of Delmar are 98% black. The median home value south of Delmar is $300,000, while the median home value north of Delmar is $70,000. The median income south of Delmar is $50,000, while the median income north of Delmar is $18,000. Finally, 70% of the residents south of Delmar have at least a Bachelor’s degree, while only 10% of the residents north of Delmar have a Bachelor’s degree.”

Complicating the clear north–south disparity, the city to the east and county to the west have been separate polities since 1876. And since the 1950s, when white flight began in earnest, the county’s population and tax base have grown at the city’s expense. But that may be changing. The Near North Side, the city’s historically black neighborhood and the site of the ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, is now largely depopulated and totally crime-ridden. A preservationist’s nightmare, so much of the original housing stock has been lost that it’s practically a greenfield: One local developer has bought 2,200 parcels and is pushing for a 1,500-acre redevelopment.

So, just as my family once fled west, blacks are fleeing north. Ferguson is one of 90 independent townships in the county. Its population was 74 percent white in 1990; today its 21,000 residents are more than two-thirds black. Yet, as has been widely reported, 49 of Ferguson’s 53 cops are white, the police chief and mayor are white, and five of the six town council members are white. The asymmetry can be attributed to the political entrenchment of the remaining white community and low black voter turnout on election days.

Since the 1920s, state and county voters have resisted repeated efforts at reunifying St. Louis, which ultimately has had the same effect as redlining, exclusionary zoning, restrictive covenants, and other tactics once used to geographically isolate St. Louis’s poor black citizens. Now, George Herbert Walker III, a cousin of the Bush presidents, is leading a study of the possible impacts of a consolidation for the Missouri Council for a Better Economy.

In segregated yet governmentally unified metro areas—Chicago’s, for instance—property taxes on the rich help pay for schools and other services in poor neighborhoods. The added expense is offset by the absence of redundant bureaucracies. By contrast, in fragmented St. Louis, rich townships support only themselves, denying opportunities to residents of poor communities and dragging down the economy of the entire metropolitan area in the process. A city divided cannot stand.