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A Cynical Take on the Endless Ferguson Hoopla...It's About Gentrification
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September 11, 2014, 12:20 PM
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Why are the New York and Washington media so obsessed over matters of local governance in tiny Ferguson, MO? For example, the latest evolution of national media thinking on the Lessons to Be Learned from the Michael Brown crime spree shooting of an unarmed teen is that the Big Issue is that other half-pint municipalities outside of the city of St. Louis give out a lot of tickets to poor blacks, who often don’t show up to pay them, and then get in serious trouble.

Some of this is no doubt classic speed trap behavior aimed at exploiting outsiders, while some of it is quality of life enforcement aimed at getting residents, especially newcomers, to behave better and not ruin property values.

Before the Interstate Highway System, speed traps were common in small towns on the way between big metropolises. The local cops would pay their salaries and more by pulling over city slickers going 1 mph over the idiosyncratic local speed limit.

Even with the Interstate Highway System, state troopers in states that don’t get a lot of tourists like Indiana and Connecticut are notorious sticklers for enforcing speed limits. For example, in 1986 I got a $128 ticket for going 73 mph at the bottom of a long downhill straightaway on an empty I-84 on a sunny day in May. The trooper was surprised that I hadn’t heard the news on the local stations that they were setting up speed traps for the Memorial Day weekend. I explained that I was from Chicago and had just flown into New York on business and was now going to Boston for a vacation, but that just sort of explained why I was the ideal kind of clueless nonresident to help balance Connecticut’s budget.

Mexican cops take this another level by having sergeants auction off the best spots to ambitious patrolmen, who are allowed to dismantle warning signs and then shakedown violators for bribes. For example, my father got a ticket in 1975 in Mexico City by attempting to drive the wrong way down a six lane one way street to get to the Palace of Fine Arts tourist attraction. The cop who whistled us over had apparently taken down the Do Not Enter sign. He told us that we’d have to spend all day in the rat-infested police station. Eventually my father got the point and gave the cop a five dollar bill and away we went.

The greater St. Louis area has a very large number of small municipalities, so speed traps make sense since cops are likely to catch a high proportion of outsiders rather than local voters.

But, St. Louis suburbs tend to give out a lot of citations to residents, too, for unneighborly behavior like parking a nonfunctional car on your front lawn. To the New York Times Editorial Board, this is just irrational racism because it has disparate impact on blacks newly moved into the suburb from the slums of St. Louis.

But, it’s helpful to look at an AP article by Corey Williams about a black majority suburb of Detroit called Southfield, in which the long-time resident middle class blacks strongly support the black police chief in issuing citations to the Detroit ghetto blacks who have been moving in. The veteran black residents want to get their fellow blacks to up their game and start conforming to suburban norms.

Three years ago, Lamar Grace left Detroit for the suburb of Southfield. He got a good deal — a 3,000-square-foot colonial that once was worth $220,000. In foreclosure, he paid $109,000.

The neighbors were not pleased.

“They don’t want to live next door to ghetto folks,” he says.

That his neighbors are black, like Grace, is immaterial. Many in the black middle class moved out of Detroit and settled in the northern suburbs years ago; now, due to foreclosures, it is easy to buy or rent houses on the cheap here.

The result has been a new, poorer wave of arrivals from the city, and growing tensions between established residents and the newcome …

People like John Clanton, a retired auto worker, say the new arrivals have brought behavior more common in the inner city — increased trash, adults and children on the streets at all times of the night, a disregard for others’ property.

“During the summer months, I sat in the garage and at 3 o’clock in the morning you see them walking up and the down the streets on their cell phones talking,” Clanton says. “They pull up (in cars) in the middle of the street, and they’ll hold a conversation. You can’t get in your driveway. You blow the horn and they look back at you and keep on talking. That’s all Detroit.”

The tensions have not gone unnoticed by local officials.

“I’ve got people of color who don’t want people of color to move into the city,” says Southfield Police Chief Joseph Thomas, who is himself black. “It’s not a black-white thing. This is a black-black thing. My six-figure blacks are very concerned about multiple-family, economically depressed people moving into rental homes and apartments, bringing in their bad behaviors.”

For example, “They still think it’s OK to play basketball at 3 o’clock in the morning; it’s OK to play football in the streets when there’s a car coming; it’s OK to walk down the streets three abreast. That’s unacceptable in this city.”

… With so many empty houses available, rents also dipped by hundreds of dollars. Renters increased from about 13,100 in 2006 to 15,400 in 2009.

Now, suburbs closest to big cities are “bedeviled” by the same problems that helped spur urban flight decades ago, Schragger adds. “And you’re seeing further flight out. Rising crime levels, some rising levels of disorder.”

These were the things that prompted Richard Twiggs to leave Detroit 23 years ago for the safety, quiet and peace of mind Southfield offered.

“The reason suburbs are the way they are is because a certain element can’t afford to live in your community,” adds Twiggs, a 54-year-old printer. “If you have $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 homes you’re relatively secure in the fact that (the homeowners) are people who can afford it.

“But when you have this crash, people who normally couldn’t afford to live in Southfield are moving in. When you have a house for $9,900 on the corner over there — that just destroys my property.”

The pride that comes with home ownership and a large financial investment in the property is missing, says Clanton, who lives across the street from Twiggs on Stahelin, about a half-mile north of Detroit. Back yards are deep and mostly tree-shaded. Sidewalks are few.

“I treasure what I bought,” Clanton says. “I want to keep it, but I don’t need somebody to come in and throw their garbage on mine. Why would they come and make our lives miserable because they don’t care?”

Though they acknowledge they would lose money by selling their current homes, Clanton and Twiggs are contemplating moving further north. …

Southfield officials say one solution to changing neighborhoods is blight enforcement, other ordinances and costly fines. The idea, said the police chief, Thomas, is not to chase people away, but to help them assimilate.

Soon after Grace, the telephone company analyst, moved into his house, he was cited for parking a small trailer on the property and storing interior doors outside. These are things that would have drawn little notice in Detroit amid the crime and failing schools, he said.

He paid $400 in fines, got rid of the doors and put the trailer in paid storage.

… He was fined $200 for noxious weeds because the grass was too high and dandelions covered much of the front lawn.

“It wouldn’t happen in Detroit,” he says. “Your property is pretty much your property. I think, here, they are going a little overboard.”

'It's not my fault you paid $250,000 and I paid a buck', By Corey Williams, February 28, 2011

Now, why in the world are media elites in Washington and New York so worked up over this kind of petty enforcement in inner ring suburbs in the middle of flyover country aimed at assimilating slum blacks?

There are a lot of reasons, but one shouldn’t totally discount self-interest, no matter how much it’s buried under layers of sanctimonious rationalizations.

In recent decades, the two gentrifying media capitals have been successfully driving out American-born blacks. They’ve been prodding African-Americans to leave with things like stop and frisk in NYC.

White people in New York and Washington thus want to grease the skids under African-Americans to make it as easy as possible for them to leave valuable urban land and head for dumpy suburbs like Ferguson. These kind of ticky-tacky citations that suburbs use to keep from turning into slums might discourage some urban blacks from moving out of gentrifiable inner city, so they must be demonized in the national press.

As I’ve mentioned before, underclass blacks are a giant hot potato that practically every municipality wants to hand off to somebody else. I don’t think there is any single best solution: there is just always going to be a lot of arguing and politicking over this. My one moral suggestion is that these discussions be honest and open about what everybody is up to. I’m particularly disgusted when the people holding the Megaphone in rapidly gentrifying New York and Washington get to use their media monopoly to demonize random nowheresvilles like Ferguson, and distract from their own efforts to drive out poor blacks to those nowheresvilles.