Can It Happen Here?

It — Ferguson — can theoretically happen anywhere, obviously. But there are some structural differences between metro St. Louis and metro Nashville in the way local and satellite governments are configured that are important to understand. An insightful New York Times op-ed today by political scientist Jeff Smith (previously a Missouri state senator from St. Louis) explains some of the history behind the geographic and demographic configuration of inner suburbs in St. Louis — history that is quite different from ours here in middle Tennessee:

Back in 1876, the city of St. Louis made a fateful decision. Tired of providing services to the outlying areas, the city cordoned itself off, separating from St. Louis County. It’s a decision the city came to regret. Most Rust Belt cities have bled population since the 1960s, but few have been as badly damaged as St. Louis City, which since 1970 has lost almost as much of its population as Detroit.

This exodus has left a ring of mostly middle-class suburbs around an urban core plagued by entrenched poverty. White flight from the city mostly ended in the 1980s; since then, blacks have left the inner city for suburbs such as Ferguson in the area of St. Louis County known as North County.

This governmental fragmentation, Smith notes, translates into large numbers of small towns with independent police forces and too much reliance on traffic stops for revenue:

St. Louis County contains 90 municipalities, most with their own city hall and police force. Many rely on revenue generated from traffic tickets and related fines….Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees; for some surrounding towns it approaches 50 percent. Municipal reliance on revenue generated from traffic stops adds pressure to make more of them.

Ninety! And that’s in a county whose population outside of the city of St. Louis is roughly the same as Davidson County. As Smith explains, because the white-to-black shift in racial demographics in many of these suburbs has occurred only fairly recently, “fewer suburban black communities have deeply ingrained civic organizations,” which is part of how it comes to be that places like Ferguson have majority white power structures (city council, school board, police force) in majority black communities.

Smith sees a remedy, one that should sound vaguely familiar to Nashvillians: consolidation.

Consolidation would help strapped North County communities avoid using such a high percentage of their resources for expensive public safety overhead, such as fire trucks. It could also empower the black citizens of Ferguson. Blacks incrementally gained power in St. Louis City in part because its size facilitates broader coalitions and alliances. Another benefit of consolidation is the increased political talent pool. Many leaders just aren’t interested in running a tiny municipality….Consolidation could create economies of scale, increase borrowing capacity to expand economic opportunity, reduce economic pressures that inflame racial tension, and smash up the old boys’ network that has long ruled much of North County.

Obviously the kind of consolidation that might bring surburban communities together in 21st century St. Louis County doesn’t mimic the experience or the experiment Nashville and Davidson County launched 50 years ago. And certainly there are other factors that make St. Louis and Nashville very different places. But it is instructive during a period of searing civic tension in a metro area that in many ways qualifies as a peer city to think about structural similarities and differences when pondering the inevitable question: can it happen here?

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

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