Spanish Lake Tells a Story about Race That's Familiar in Dallas, Ferguson and Everywhere

During a recent evening rush-hour, KERA was serving commuters one of its usual panels of NPR experts talking about the news, in this case the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot dead by a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer. The talking heads all agreed: America needs to have a good heart-to-heart with itself about race.

Are we really ready for that conversation?

If so, Matt Smith has just the thing to break the ice. He's a producer of a new documentary in which residents of Spanish Lake, a St. Louis suburb near Ferguson, speak candidly about race, white flight and the government's role in creating divided communities very much like Ferguson. Or, for that matter, very much like those in Dallas, where the film Spanish Lake gets a special showing at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the AMC NorthPark. (Tickets, $11, are available only online through Tugg.)

"It's a problem in every major city," says Smith, though growing up in a multi-cultural community in Los Angeles, he never experienced first-hand the deep racial divide he encountered in Spanish Lake until he traveled to Missouri with director Phillip Andrew Morton, who grew up there.

Because Morton was from the Spanish Lake, Smith says, most of their first interviews were with people he knew growing up, and the film captures some white people being uncomfortably candid with their opinions about their black neighbors. Hearing some of those perspectives was difficult, Smith says, but the filmmakers operated on the belief that "it is not racist to have a conversation about these things."

We need to talk candidly about difficult subjects, Smith says, because that's how long-term change comes about.

(The theater chain in St. Louis that had scheduled the film this month, however, wasn't ready for that so soon after Brown's killing and canceled screenings there. Smith says the filmmakers are in talks with other companies to get it distributed nationally.)

Smith has long been fascinated by demographics and population shifts, he says, and his interest was piqued by his friend Morton, who described the rapid changes sweeping through his hometown. Since the '90s, the population or Spanish Lake, eight miles northeast of Ferguson, has shifted from from 80 percent white in the early '90s to 80 percent black in 2010.

See also: How Ferguson Became Ferguson: Urgent Doc Spanish Lake Tracks a St. Louis Suburb's Shift From White to Black

The white flight was encouraged by government polices at all levels, as massive inner-city housing projects were closed down and their tenants dispersed into low-rise housing projects in the suburbs. Meanwhile, more affluent towns acted to keep public housing out while unincorporated Spanish Lake faced a tide of poor people dropped into a community that lacked the public services and transportation they needed.

"They were dumped there," Smith says of Spanish Lakes' new population. "That doesn't solve the problem, that just dumps them somewhere else."

The notion that government would deliberately corral the poor into selected neighborhoods and essentially wall off white, affluent areas will sound familiar to anyone who has been following Dallas's dispute with the Department of Housing and Urban Development over allegations the city did just that, using money provided by HUD.

Smith says they chose Dallas for the screening because they thought audiences here will relate to Spanish Lake's story. But that's true about pretty much everywhere in America.

"I think everyone will, because it's about home," he says.

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