Charles Davis showed up at his new restaurant on the morning of Aug. 9 ready for a long day of work. He’d opened the Ferguson Burger Bar & More just a day earlier, and this was his first Saturday night. The restaurant is located on the east side of Ferguson in a low-slung commercial strip, between a barbershop and a beauty supply store. Davis was taking orders and shuttling them back to the kitchen when the phone rang. The call was for his wife, Kizzie, who also works at the restaurant. The news was horrible. A family friend, a young man Kizzie had known since he was a kid, had been shot and killed by a police officer just a few blocks away. Michael Brown was 18 years old, about to start his freshman year of college. Word started circulating among Davis’s customers: Brown’s body was lying in the street, blood everywhere, the cops keeping everyone away. The kid had been shot with his hands up, people were saying.
“When things started unfolding, I knew what was going to happen,” says Davis, who is black. “Because the way they were handling things, the police. The way they were hiding things. I knew then: ‘Yeah, it’s going to be a problem.’ ”
About a mile away, another local business owner, Beth Thompson, was unaware of the shooting. Thompson, who is white, owns a bakery called Cose Dolci, between a wine bar and a bike shop in Ferguson’s revitalized downtown. That Saturday, she was scouting local farmers’ markets to find new venues to sell her cupcakes, scones, and gooey butter bars, a St. Louis favorite. She only learned of the shooting when she got home that evening. Over the next two weeks, as protests over Brown’s death gave rise to violence and looting on the streets of the town, prompting Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to call in the U.S. Army National Guard, Thompson followed it on the national news. “Initially I was thinking, ‘It’s time to move’—honestly,” she says. “I was shocked. It was very surreal. It did not seem like it was possible that that could happen in this community. But clearly it did.”
Long before it became the focus of global attention, a symbol of America’s continuing struggle over race and police violence, Ferguson was a deeply divided place. The wounds from the past—from race riots, white flight, civil rights lawsuits to integrate the city’s schools—have baked segregation into the fabric of St. Louis and the surrounding area. There are white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods; white shops and black shops; white schools and black schools. And the divide is profoundly unequal. The black neighborhoods are poorer, with fewer kids graduating from school, higher crime rates, and higher unemployment.
Black and white business owners—people such as Davis and Thompson—live in different worlds, too, catering almost entirely to customers of their own race. Most lived uneasily with the status quo until it exploded with Brown’s death. Now business owners are bound together more tightly than anyone ever expected they’d be, having to rebuild a city and its prospects. For years the suburban belt north of St. Louis has seen a decline in the kind of blue-collar manufacturing jobs and retail outlets that once supported the local economy. The metro area had 1.3 million jobs in January, almost unchanged from the same month a decade ago. Its population fell about 1 percent during the Great Recession, while per capita income dropped almost 8 percent, to $50,257 a year. The last few years have been a game of catch-up, with population and income slowly returning to 2008 levels.
Ferguson could stagnate for decades, choking out investment and small businesses, as has happened in other urban areas in the wake of riots. “Obviously, it has to have a negative impact on the image, perception, and reputation of the region,” says Richard Ward, principal at Ward Development Counsel and an economic development and real estate consultant who’s worked in St. Louis for more than 40 years. Because the Ferguson riots were contained to a relatively small area—virtually all the unrest was limited to a half-mile commercial strip along West Florissant Avenue—many businesses are still able to operate. That means the city has a chance to rebound. But in a place where emotions remain so raw, no one thinks it will be easy.
Almost two weeks after Brown was killed, the Burger Bar is packed. The restaurant has become a haven for the throngs who descend on West Florissant each night. At the height of the protests, the streets in front of Davis’s restaurant filled with marchers holding up their arms in sympathy with Brown. Armored police vehicles patrolled the middle of the avenue before parking in front of Furniture for Less, flanked by troopers in combat gear. Swarms of journalists and cameramen circulated with the crowds. Kids with shaved heads, combat boots, and anarchist T-shirts congregated in parking lots. Young black kids marched around with bandanas over their faces and hoods over their heads. Davis stood behind the bar of his restaurant in the middle of it all, slinging burgers.
Davis, 47, is a stocky guy with a shaved head and a bit of gray in his beard. The glasses he wears make him look somewhat like a high school principal, and he exudes a calming confidence from behind the counter, putting patrons at ease even as armored police cars roll by. “Welcome to Ferguson Burger Bar & More,” he calls out, “where the food will tap-dance on your tongue.”
Davis is clearly still working to get his system running smoothly. The kitchen is backed up. On a recent, typically busy night, he writes down a customer order on a ticket and pushes open the door to the kitchen to hand it over. The kitchen is steaming hot, with four staffers working in close quarters. The countertop is covered with a haphazard row of order tickets. Davis holds up the new one.
“I don’t know where you want this ticket!” he says.
“In line!” one of the cooks responds. Davis hurriedly drops the order and goes back out to take more.
On Aug. 10, Davis had stood in front of his house, up the street from the restaurant, and watched Ferguson’s social order disintegrate. Earlier in the day there had been protests, which devolved into looting. “Standing outside my house, I’m seeing things I’ve never seen. People pulling up in carloads,” he recalls. “Cars were parking in front of my home. Guys and girls getting out in ski masks running across the street. It was just a madhouse.”
The next day, Davis went down to the restaurant, not knowing what to expect. To his surprise, the big, plate-glass windows were intact. The place hadn’t been touched. Davis made up his mind: He would stay open. Despite being in the middle of riots that included flash bombs, tear gas, and looting, he hasn’t missed a night. “I bought a business to make money. Nothing’s going to stop me,” he says, with a broad smile.
The restaurant got a boost when the McDonald’s across the street started to shut down daily at 4:30 for the safety of its employees and customers. Davis’s spot was the only place to buy a hot meal during the long nights of protest.
Davis is new to the restaurant business. Born and raised in St. Louis, he first ventured into business running a car lot. Then he got into real estate, buying up old houses in St. Louis, rehabilitating them, and selling them off. That business died out with the real estate crash, and Davis says he was looking for a new opportunity when the Burger Bar went up for sale in late July. He bought it with personal savings and had about three days to get up to speed on the restaurant industry.
“Every business has their different intricacies, but business is business, to me,” he says. “It was just another venture for me to overcome another obstacle. It’s about getting in, learning, working hard.”
Davis is hoping the income from the restaurant will augment what he might make in real estate and a home health business he’s planning to start with Kizzie. He doesn’t see many alternatives. “The economy of St. Louis sucks. Period. All the major companies are gone,” he says. “There was a time when you’d get a job at Chrysler, and you’d stay on the job 30 years until you retired. We don’t have that anymore.”
About a mile and a half from the protest site, there is a different Ferguson, a largely white-owned business district located in some quaint historic buildings that have been refurbished in recent years. There’s a wine bar, a microbrewery, a coffee shop, and Thompson’s bakery. Cose Dolci has pink walls and a brightly lit display counter containing freshly baked cupcakes and other goodies.
This business strip is the result of a decade of work. North St. Louis County towns such as Ferguson aren’t shopping destinations. The center of retail gravity has shifted far west to distant exurbs like Chesterfield, about 30 miles from downtown. Throughout the area, there are business owners such as Thompson moving into rehabilitated buildings and trying to stoke economic activity in previously abandoned neighborhoods. They tend to be a nervous lot: Every shooting, every mugging, every report of unruly teenagers fighting in the streets on a Saturday night feels like it might reverse the momentum they’ve been working so hard to build.
In a way, the story line of the Ferguson riots has been unfair to its residents and business owners. Ferguson is not so much a standalone city as it is a neighborhood, seamlessly interconnected with municipalities such as Normandy, Dellwood, Jennings, and the city of St. Louis itself. A police shooting could have happened in any of these towns. Ferguson’s metamorphosis into #Ferguson singled out a community within St. Louis’s inner suburban ring, making it the focal point for regional problems.
Thompson, 46, started her business more than a decade ago, selling scones at the Ferguson Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. She’s a slight woman, short and lean, who seems like pure energy wrapped in a small pink apron. Quick to laugh and banter with customers, she’s tireless even in the middle of a busy shift, as employees ask her for help and she assists a customer struggling with the trick handle of the shop’s front door.
After she’d sold baked goods at the farmers’ market for a few years, the city approached her and asked if she’d like to open a brick-and-mortar bakery downtown. “I was, like, ‘No,’ ” she recalls. When the city enticed her with tax-increment financing, she decided to go for it. She worked 16-hour days in the beginning. Eventually she had enough money to hire help, and now the bakery has five employees. She says she isn’t trying to get rich. She’s doing it because she loves the work. And she loves that her shop is a community hub: The same group of customers comes back regularly to chat at the counter and pick up treats.
Like Davis, Thompson has seen an unexpected upswing in business since the looting started. A local group of civic leaders started a Facebook campaign to encourage St. Louis residents to shop in Ferguson, and it worked. Some days, Thompson can’t keep up with the demand.
But just like Davis across town, she worries how business might be in a month, and then three months after that. How badly has the “Ferguson” brand been tarnished by all this? Will people still come to the farmers’ market? Will young couples want to buy a house in town?
“A lot of these businesses around here are mom and pop,” Thompson says. “We’re not corporate. We don’t have deep pockets. If we lose our customer base, we’ll have to close our doors.”
That prospect fills people such as Paul Morris with dread. He’s the secretary of the Ferguson-Florissant school board, a retired teacher who’s dedicated to living in the area. He calls Ferguson a “point-of-sale city,” meaning that it depends on sales tax receipts from businesses such as Thompson’s and Davis’s. The city is already hurting. Since the real estate crash of 2008, overall property assessments have fallen 15 percent, Morris says, cutting deeply into the school system’s money. Just this summer, the city passed a tax levy to shore up the budget.
Thompson says downtown businesses are committed to pulling through. On the first night of looting, business owners were calling each other frantically. “Everybody kind of got on the same page and said, ‘We’re going to wait and not open for a day or two and see what happens. Then we’ll all open at the same time.’ ”
They did just that, and for now business is good.
“Everybody supports each other around here,” Thompson says. “I’m hoping people don’t forget that we’re here.”
The strip of West Florissant Avenue that was the scene of the looting is quiet and partly ruined. Plywood is still nailed over many store windows, spray-painted with slogans such as “WE WILL BE BACK” and “OPEN! BLACK OWNED.” The looting has ended; most media satellite trucks have left; and the long job of recovery is just beginning.
If there’s any bright side to be found in Ferguson’s turmoil, it might be that people are more attuned to the region’s problems. Joe Reagan, the chief executive officer of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, doesn’t try to put a positive spin on events. Even before the looting started, the chamber was focused on the conditions that contributed to it, he says. The first priority is reforming the St. Louis school system. Doing so will be critical to drawing talented workers to the area and narrowing the inequalities between the mostly black residents of St. Louis and its inner suburbs, who live in city neighborhoods with failed public schools, and those, mostly white, who live in more distant towns with better schools.
The second task is to reform the region’s deeply dysfunctional government. The city of St. Louis separated itself from surrounding St. Louis County long ago. Over the decades, the suburban population has boomed, while the city has stagnated. Now the county is a patchwork of tiny cities such as Ferguson and St. Ann, with often blurred lines of authority, a problem most evident when it comes to law enforcement. The county government has a police force it provides to cities under contract. But some towns, including Ferguson, choose to field their own police forces, which have varying levels of funding and training. The nearby city of Jennings, for example, fired its entire department a few years ago in part because racial tensions between citizens and police ran so deep.
Reforming St. Louis’s governance and fixing the schools are hard, long-term jobs, and talk of doing both has been perennial. What’s different now is a sense of urgency. Nobody wants another eruption, but everyone understands that it’s a distinct possibility. For the moment, the interest in making real changes seems abundant. “Look, our community and our country have solved daunting problems before,” Reagan says. “We’ve just got to make a decision to do it. I think it’s time for the business community to demonstrate—we’ve got to demonstrate leadership.”
For all that separates them, Thompson and Davis share a commitment to their city and an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit. “We’re not going to let this slow us down. We’re not going to live in fear. We’ll keep moving forward,” Thompson says, greeting customers at the Ferguson Farmers Market. Her sister, Jackie Mafuli, mans the booth, sweating in the August humidity. She’s already sold out of specialty sugar cookies with a peace sign on them.
Across town at the Burger Bar, Davis says, “This is a long-term problem, and it’s not going to be fixed with a short-term solution.” During the Friday lunch rush, the restaurant is busy, but not as frantic as it had been during the nights of protest, perhaps a preview of what things will look like once all the excitement dies down. A white customer enters. His name is Robert Chabot, and he’s the school board president. It’s Chabot’s first time in the place, and he’s brought a friend with him. Chabot approaches the counter and tells Davis that someone on Facebook recommended the restaurant.
“He said you had the best burger in Ferguson,” Chabot says.
“Actually, outside of Ferguson, too,” Davis replies without missing a beat. The men share a laugh. Davis scribbles a ticket and takes it back to the kitchen.