We are highlighting Ferguson, Missouri this month in the Good Towns series. Spotlighting special towns across the country, Good Towns is about the character, the history, the people and the unique things that make a town a special place. We hope you enjoy this story about Ferguson’s people and its resilience.
Mike Wood watched his career go up in smoke. It was during the chaos following Michael Brown’s death. Grief begat frustration, which turned into anger.
Zisser Tire, a well-known business on West Florissant, where Ferguson meets Dellwood, was burning to the ground.
“When everything was on fire and going up in flames, my first thought was that I’d be looking for a new job,” Wood said.
Three years later, Wood is at the same job. He’s the manager of Zisser Tire, which has a new storefront but the same steady stream of customers it did before this North St. Louis County neighborhood became the centerpiece of 24/7 news channel broadcasts across the nation.
The damage surpassed six figures, but the help that came proved priceless. Residents came to join the cleanup. Others checked on Wood and his staff and asked them to stay.
“When it all went down, we had loyal customers that came back to us and gave us their business and told us they wanted us around,” Wood said. “People watching the news didn’t get an accurate description. They didn’t know what Ferguson is really like.”
What is Ferguson really like? It’s a town of nearly 21,000 people not far removed from the hustle and bustle of downtown St. Louis. It’s full of older homes, small businesses and friendly people. It’s nothing like you’d imagine from watching wall-to-wall coverage of what transpired in late 2014.
It is home to Emerson Electric, a Fortune 500 company based here for more than 70 years. Emerson’s headquarters, with close to 1,300 employees, is a mile down the road from Zisser Tire.
“A lot of communities experience crisis, but the big question is, ‘What comes next?’” said Carol Swartout Klein, a local author who grew up in Ferguson.
This is a story about what came next.
A Business District Reborn
For media covering Ferguson, and for celebrities who came to town to stand up for voting rights in the aftermath, Cathy’s Kitchen became the spot where everybody who’s somebody sat down for a home-cooked meal.
“This was considered Ground Zero,” said owner Cathy Jenkins. “It was right next door to the police department.”
This was the stretch of the business district that lured protesters. To try to keep things from getting out of hand, the National Guard sent troops and tanks to protect the people and the businesses. When looting began, someone took an in-the-moment video of protesters making a human chain around a storefront, protecting it from harm.
That storefront? Cathy’s Kitchen.
“I was honored that my place was protected,” Jenkins said. “I’ve always maintained that there were two sets of people there: People who legitimately wanted to see change and people who were criminals and merely wanted to cause trouble. Those people were in the minority, but they got all the attention.”
Three years later, the business district thrives again. If possible, Cathy’s Kitchen is more popular than ever. Other new businesses come online all the time. A new condominium development just opened on the same block.
And the people who came to explore saw the Ferguson that Jenkins always sees, except for a few unforgettable nights.
“Ferguson is a great community of families, it’s nice and affordable and you feel safe living here,” she said. “It’s a small town, where everyone knows everyone else, but you’re minutes from the city.”
On a sunny day, cars weave down the main street while people flood sidewalks, moving from one store to the next. The flow is steady, and it looks and feels like Main Street America.
Loving Ferguson Across the World
The signs in the shop window have two words flanking a drawing of a heart. Put them together and you have a simple phrase: I Love Ferguson. The phrase – on bumper stickers and T-shirts and anything else you can imagine — have produced more than $100,000 in donations to local organizations.
“When the first riots happened, five residents sat together at a coffee house and asked, ‘What can we do to help?’” said Sandy Sansevere, a longtime North County resident.
The late Brian Fletcher, a former Ferguson mayor, suggested the slogan, and 200 I Love Ferguson signs were made. And, suddenly, they couldn’t make signs fast enough.
This was a community in need of something to embrace. As the town garnered national attention, Ferguson was already hurting. “We just had two major tornadoes right before that devastated portions of Ferguson,” Sansevere explained.
Sansevere is a regular volunteer at the I Love Ferguson store, where they have sold memorabilia to people in 61 countries and funded numerous college scholarships with the proceeds.
Visitors who stop by are surprised by the optimistic outlook. They’re also surprised by the diversity of the people.
“We’ve been diverse here for the 30 years I’ve been here,” Sansevere said. “The difference now is that young people are moving in and houses aren’t staying on the market. We have more volunteers involved in the community. And, since this happened, I feel people are closer to each other than we were before.
New Opportunity for Everyone
Where once there was rubble there is a gleaming new building. The Ferguson Empowerment Community Center opened in June, thanks to a coalition of community partners led by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and the Salvation Army. Corporate contributions came from across the region, including Emerson Electric just down the street.
On the site of a burned down gas station, the building will serve as the base for the Urban League’s Save Our Sons initiative. Save Our Sons is an employment training and outreach program for at-risk young men. In addition, the Salvation Army will house offices for the Lutheran Church and the University of Missouri-Extension, while providing after-school tutoring for young students and rent and utilities financial assistance for struggling families.
This was a dream realized for Michael McMillan, CEO and President of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. For three years, McMillan championed the project, which marked the first time the Urban League built from the ground up.
At the grand opening ceremony, National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial said cities across the nation would take note of how Ferguson turned tragedy into hope and a new beginning.
“Three years ago, when I first heard the word Ferguson on TV, it was because of negative connotations,” said Dan Jennings of the Salvation Army. “Now we are changing the tide today. It’s amazing what we can do when we work together.”
Not all the changes in Ferguson are physical. Yet long-time residents will tell you that the biggest change is that Ferguson is getting back to what it was before it dominated 24-hour news channels.
“The biggest issue in Ferguson before was that no one had ever heard of it,” said Carol Swartout Klein. “And that was because this was – and is – a great place to live. I grew up in Ferguson and I lived here for 26 years. It will always be home.”
Now she works to let others see Ferguson as she and hundreds of artists see things. She has taken paintings by local artists that adorned boarded up storefronts and converted them into a pair of children’s books called Painting For Peace. Proceeds go toward helping rebuild the town.
Tracey Jeffries lives in a neighboring North County town. A successful St. Louis businessperson in economic and real estate development, Jeffries believes the people of Ferguson have impacted positive change not only for the community but throughout the region.
A once all-white police force, the source of frustration for the African-American community even before the Michael Brown shooting, is now diverse. So are government positions. It is change that can only come through elections and by people working together, talking out differences, and finding a common cause.
That cause: Ferguson’s future.
“That’s what makes Ferguson so special,” Jeffries said. “There was an awakening that we were a diverse community, yet we were not truly integrated. Now you see a diverse council and police force. Ferguson has created a wave that will show other cities how to integrate and work together in harmony.”
Mike Hart is both a member of the community and a corporate leader who has seen rapid changes transform the community.
“I believe Ferguson is stronger now than it has ever been,” said Hart, the Midwest Area President for Regions Bank. “I see it daily through work with our partners, like the Urban League, Operation HOPE and Jobs for America’s Graduates, and in our support for the Jennings and Riverview Garden school districts. It’s about people helping people.”
The connections mean involvement throughout the metropolitan area. Hart serves on the board of Jobs for America’s Graduates and will meet with Rep. Lacy Clay to provide an overview of the program’s success.
“I see our associates who are invested – both emotionally and in giving time — in the people of Ferguson and North County,” Hart added. “They serve as volunteers in the community and as mentors for students from eighth grade to high school sophomores. We don’t simply write checks. We want to be involved in making this community stronger.”
Fly Me to the Moon – Or Mars, if You Prefer
A drive through Ferguson’s residential district is a drive back in time with leafy, tree-lined streets leading past rows of older, well-maintained homes. This was and is a neighborhood where the working class mingled with the business elite.
It remembers its history. The Whistle Stop has a menu of railroad-themed sandwiches and local custard, and is housed in a former train depot where trains first intersected en route to the St. Louis business district.
Of course, you’re less than a half-hour drive from any tourist stop of note in greater St. Louis, from the famed St. Louis Arch and Busch Stadium downtown to Grant’s Farm, which housed the famous Budweiser Clydesdales.
But if you want to take a trip to Mars, you must stay in Ferguson.
Located next to a gleaming modern high school building is the Challenger Learning Center, where students from across the Midwest come to learn about science. Part of a network of science centers around the world created to honor the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the Ferguson location hosts public and school programs and the popular summer camps.
Beating the heat outside, campers work from mission control and a simulated space station orbiting Earth to study our planet from above. Each of the middle-school students has a scientific mission and must work cooperatively with partners to pull the mission off.
“I’ve been here nine years and I knew about it before I came here,” said Education Director Robert Powell, who oversees the program. “Still, there are people who live in Ferguson who don’t know about it.”
Maybe that’s because most of the Challenger campers have learned about this high-tech summer fun through word of mouth. Somehow, the word spreads quickly. Campers have come from Arkansas and Indiana as well as other countries, from Canada to India and Israel, Powell said.
In addition to the view of earth from above, campers can participate in the Mission to Mars and Rendezvous with a Comet.
It’s more proof how far Ferguson has come. And from here, you can see light years ahead.