FERGUSON, Mo. – Long before the world rested its collective conscience on the protests along West Florissant Avenue, there was a different mobilization going on.
Hundreds of people were moving out of their urban neighborhoods to this north St. Louis County suburb seeking a safe and affordable place to live.
They found it in an isolated corner of Ferguson that was flush with sprawling apartment complexes. Far from Ferguson’s leafy residential streets and quaint downtown, many people didn’t even know the apartments were part of the city until young Michael Brown was shot and killed there Aug. 9.
But the police knew.
After decades of relative calm and stability, the apartments have become a tinderbox for crime. Canfield Green Apartments and the nearby Oakmont and Northwinds complexes are a study of the slow encroachment of poverty and social distress into what had been suburban escapes.
Angela Shaver has witnessed that sea change since she moved into Canfield Green Apartments 20 years ago. The state employee said she raised a prom queen there and sent her off to college.
There used to be a swimming pool. Now, there’s a bullet hole in the door below her.
That shooting, and many others, happened long before all the vigil candles melted in the middle of the street for Brown.
Even as Shaver explained the frequency of gunfire, she was cut off by a sudden blast coming from Northwinds Apartments, a hulking spread with more than 400 low-income units.
Shaver paused to listen. No screams. No more shots. She picked up the interview where she’d left off.
“I hate to say I got used to them,” she said of the gunshots.
Ferguson’s crime and poverty rate is lower than some of the other North County municipalities. But the small southeast corner of the city where the apartments are glows bright red on crime maps.
That area along West Florissant Avenue and justeast of it accounted for 18 percent of all serious crimes reported between 2010 and August of 2012, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch analysis of crime data provided by St. Louis County.
The area accounted for 28 percent of all burglaries, 28 percent of all aggravated assaults, 30 percent of all motor vehicle thefts and 40 percent of all robberies reported in the city of 21,000 people.
It’s a cluster of densely populated complexes that stand apart from the predominantly single-family streets of Ferguson.
On a map, the area sticks out like an appendage, one that was added to Ferguson by annexation. Many of the children who live in the complexes aren’t even part of the Ferguson-Florissant school system.
Adding to that isolation, police have blocked off nearly all access roads to the apartments with concrete barriers, fences and gates.
The nearly all-white police force has struggled to maintain control and respect from many African-Americans who live there as officers try to clamp down on crime.
There is a common perception that police stop people without reason.
“If you stay here, they basically think you are a thug,” said Gerard Fuller, 19, who is headed to Arkansas Baptist College on a basketball scholarship.
The Brown shooting dug into that nerve. The response seems to have as much to do with socio-economic factors as it does opinions about race relations and police brutality in communities across the country that have struggled to integrate.
In St. Louis County alone, African-American poor are six times as likely as white poor to live in areas of concentrated poverty.
The apartment complexes located on the fringe of Ferguson – the self-proclaimed “Community of Choice” – give a glimpse of what that looks like.
The eruption of looting and violent protests and the national attention it drew give a glimpse of the implications.
Ferguson is one of St. Louis County’s older suburbs, dating to the late 1850s, when a farmer named William B. Ferguson donated land for a station platform on what was then the North Missouri Railroad. It was a whistle stop on the road to the farming village of Florissant.
By 1894, when Ferguson became a city, it had about 1,000 residents, and had become a commuting suburb for families who could afford to escape the noise and soot of St. Louis. It would go on to have periods of exponential growth.
In the 1960s, Ferguson annexed the land where Brown would be shot. He was walking back home to his grandmother’s apartment in the Northwinds complex.
Ashley Nowden, 29, had lived in Northwinds for six years before she hastily moved out in January after being burglarized three separate times. She connects the rise of crimes to an increase of low-income renters.
“It is a more younger crowd now,” she said.
Maine-based Eagle Point Companies bought Northwinds in 2005 and poured $12.5 million into refurbishing the complex, thanks in part to low-income housing credits. Part of the deal was that to be eligible to live there, residents can earn no more than 60 percent of the median income in the area.
Northwinds is one of 31 affordable housing properties like it that Eagle Point owns across the U.S.
Laura Burns, president of the company, said she thought crime is under control at Northwinds, but she acknowledged residents tend to be nomadic.
“We have a lot of turnover,” she said. “Some of our residents unfortunately are not in a position to pay the rent for whatever reason.”
Louis Smith, 68, sees the sprawling apartments as yesterday’s high-rise public housing complexes like Pruitt-Igoe.
“After they tore these projects down, a lot of people started coming everywhere, everywhere, man,” said Smith, a retired McDonnell Douglas machinist who moved out of Canfield Green in the 1980s to buy a nearby home.
He said his wife, who is involved with the neighborhood watch, has complained to city leaders about unchaperoned and unruly children who come over from the apartments and destroy property.
“The women work,” he said of apartment residents.”The guys stay home, smoke dope and walk around harassing people.”
“You can’t say nothing to them,” he added. “They'll cuss you out.”
Ferguson real estate broker Georgia Rossel also took aim at the apartments.
“Apartments don’t promote community,” said Rossel, who also serves on the planning and zoning board in nearby Jennings. “People are just in and out. They don’t stay.”
But she said the rental market is so hot now because people can’t get home loans.
Making matters worse in the eyes of some apartment residents, police have closed off nearly all access points with concrete barriers and fencing.
About a year ago, a gate went up on the main thoroughfare that’s typically only open during the school year so buses can head to Koch Elementary School.
When closed, hundreds of residents have just one way in and out.
“The city required us to put that gate in,” said Burns, of Eagle Point. Stopping the traffic, she was told, would benefit the city and the police department.
Rochele Jackson, 54, a Northwinds resident, viewed it a different way.
“I am wondering if it is for safety or just to cage us in,” said Jackson, who works on a cleaning crew at Washington University.
The city, she said, has close eye on the complex by exercising tight controls the occupancy permitting process.
“When a new resident moves in, the city has to inspect the unit and can deny a move in,” Burns said.
Eagle Point recently started managing Park Ridge Apartments last fall, which is on the other side of West Florissant Avenue.
A black metal perimeter fence and front gate are nearly complete.
Canfield Green was mostly white when Kevin Edwards and his family moved in 12 years ago. It has since been filled mostly with African-Americans.
Edwards, 50, who is black, gives credit to the complex’s owners for maintaining the property.
“They keep it nice,” he said of neatly trimmed lawns and shrubs.
He says Canfield residents are no different than anyone else. “People here get up in the morning and go to work, try to pay their bills and raise families,” he said.
But the complex attracts a bad element. People with open warrants cruise the sidewalks. And that draws in police.
His son Neal, a student at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, said he was walking on Canfield last year toward West Florissant. The site is about a block east of the Brown shooting scene when Ferguson police pulled up. An officer grabbed him by the shoulders, slammed him against the squad car and cuffed him, he said.
The officer was hunting a suspect in a red hoodie. Neal’s was deep burgundy. He was released five minutes later, without apology.
Kevin Edwards thought back to the incident when he learned of the Brown shooting. “That could have been (my son) lying out there.”
Tony Ambus, 42, had a similar recollection. He once pulled up to nearby Nesbit Newton Park in a maroon pickup with Illinois license plates to eat a few hot dogs. The small park, which is monitored by surveillance cameras, is a passageway between the crush of apartments and the subdivision of houses.
Ambus, who is black, said four police officers rolled up around noon and yelled: “Get your hands out of the car!”
He asked why he was being targeted. Officers told him he was sitting in a high traffic area for drug activity.
“They drew their guns on me like it was nothing,” Ambus said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton brought down the house last week when he yelled to a packed audience: “You’ve got issues in this city!”
According to arrest data tracked by the attorney general’s office, there were a total of 5,384 traffic stops in Ferguson in 2013. Of those, 686 were white, 4,632 were black. Police were nearly two times as likely to search blacks than whites, even though whites had a higher hit rate for contraband.
The city’s demographics have been quickly changing. In 2000, Ferguson was 52 percent African-American and 45 percent white. Today, it’s 67 percent black and 29 percent white.
Only three of its 53 police officers are white.
Police Chief Thomas Jackson said there have been obstacles in the way of recruiting a more diverse department.
“It’s been issues like pay and just the job pool,” he said. “Everybody is competing for good quality police officers of all races. We just need to continue to make ourselves more competitive.”
He said officers are required to do diversity training every year.
“When my officers stop somebody they have either reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” he said. “That’s the rules. They can stop and talk to people and carry on conversations.”
The area where Brown was shot was on the chief’s radar before the protests.
“There are four complexes all jammed in there together, and it’s a higher crime area,” he said.
He played down complaints from residents who say officers are no longer on a first-name basis with residents, no longer known for giving people rides home during storms.
“That’s still the case,” he said. “You are just talking to the wrong folks.”
When darkness falls, life inside Jeanisha Hill’s Northwinds apartment revolves around staying low. She said she pulls a mattress to the floor for her children to sleep on because it feels safer below the window ledge.
A feeling of lawlessness came with the lease. But since Brown’s shooting, the disorder has become even more stifling. She thought about taking her daughter to join volunteers who cleaned up West Florissant Avenue last week.
“It was too scary to do that,” said Hill, 33.
She believes those shooting guns day and night will get bolder.She doesn’t see anything changing even after the protests eventually end.
“This is just the beginning of something worse,” she said.
Hill supports the protests. She, too, believes the police have overstepped their authority, but she condemns the looting.
Her children are not allowed to play outside. She walks her daughter to and from the bus stop. Somebody lit a trash can on fire last week near her apartment. Several 911 calls went out to a fire department that never arrived.
Hill only moved into that housing complex because she qualified for subsidies. There was a $99 move-in special at the time, just as there is now.
“If I could, I would move out,” she said.