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The Story in Ferguson, Missouri, Hits Close to Home

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Something in the Ferguson, Missouri, story I keep looking for, waiting. My dad's family is from St. Louis. Sorta. So anyway today I found an op-ed piece in The New York Times that maybe gets to part of it or somewhere in that general direction.

Jeff Smith, a professor of urban policy at The New School in New York and a former Missouri state senator, begins to weave the story of Ferguson back into the longer narrative of St. Louis. That's what I wanted to know.

My grandfather was a German immigrant who came to Missouri alone at age 8 at the end of the 19th century, sold into indenture on a Missouri farm long after indenture was illegal. When he was 12, according to family legend, a black man on the farm told him about the Civil War and how people couldn't own people in America any more. My grandfather ran off to St. Louis, put himself through high school unloading barges on the levee and became a successful small businessman with a huge family.

He despised all things German, understandably. St. Louis had a big German immigrant population centered in a poor part of town. In St. Louis there were ethnic pejorative terms for German immigrants -- the "scrubby Dutch" and "step-scrubbers" -- the only ethnic minority ever discriminated against for being too tidy. Hey, this is America. We'll find something.

The first thing my grandfather did when he got money was move out of the German area. He was American, by God. By the time I was sent alone to St. Louis as a little boy, my father had already explained to me that his side of the family came from Germany, way back. So my ear caught it when I heard my grandfather use the pejorative terms for Germans. Nothing was more disappointing, in his book, than when a girl of good family went across town to marry some scrubby Dutch boy, some step-scrubber from the wrong side of the tracks.

Eventually the entire family moved out of the city to the county, where people were not German or black or Italian or Lithuanian. By God, they were white.

When my mother died in February 2002, my father began preparing for his own death, which would come six months later, by throwing out everything he considered personal or sentimental. He was like that. He gathered most of it in black plastic contractor bags, which were to be taken to the landfill by us. One bag was full of my mother's unpublished manuscripts, a life's work.

My wife was horrified. She rescued the bag of rubber-banded typewritten pages, all of which went eventually to my sister, Peggy Shearn, an artist in Chicago. She read them. Some she sent to her daughter Amy Shearn, a novelist in Brooklyn.

Amy was especially struck by one piece of work, a novella based on my parents' young lives as New Deal-era social activists in St. Louis. It's called "The Little Bastard." I haven't read it. My niece keeps assuring me the title is not a reference to me.

Amy says the story is a moving evocation of young adults living in a privately developed experimental low-income apartment complex called "Neighborhood Gardens" in the late '30s, early '40s. Neighborhood Gardens became a model for public housing, first in St. Louis and then around the country, with low-rise sort of European-looking architecture centered on an open courtyard. That model was abandoned later in favor of high-rise public housing centers like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, which opened in 1954 and was demolished 20 years later under circumstances that are still controversial.

My mother talked to us when we were kids about Neighborhood Gardens. I think it was her fondest memory, very Bo-ho and arty for a girl from Wichita, Kansas. They ate spaghetti and drank cheap wine with a neighbor, William Inge, a St. Louis critic who went on to become an iconic 20th century American playwright (Bus Stop, Picnic, Come Back, Little Sheba). My mother formed a lifelong pen-pal friendship with Martha Gellhorn, offspring of an old St. Louis progressive family who went on to become a noted journalist and one of the wives of Ernest Hemingway.

My niece was so impressed with the literary merit of "Little Bastard" that she took it to market, seeking to have it published posthumously (posthumous of my mother, not Amy, obviously). And she has succeeded. In September, Anchor & Plume publishers will bring out "The Little Bastard" by Frances Schutze. My sister did the cover. I haven't read it yet. I wait with bated breath, on pins and needles, thin ice, however you want to put it. It's my mother back from the grave. How would you feel?

In pitching the project and helping get it ready for publication, Amy did a lot of research on Neighborhood Gardens. Her work provides intriguing insights into that whole era in American progressivism and cities. Did I mention that Neighborhood Gardens, arty and cool as it may have been, was racially segregated? Did I have to tell you that?

Not only was I not surprised, the first thought that occurred to me was: "Yeah, of course it was whites-only at first, but eventually did they have to let those scrubby Dutch in?"

As Jeff Smith explains in the piece in the Times today, the entire history of St. Louis and the suburban realm around it is the saga of Americans lifting themselves up out of humble beginnings, moving on up and on out. My own observation would be that the process always enabled recently upward people to lord it over the still humble, on a spectrum that had the knife of racism as its far bloody edge.

There are still entire chapters in the St. Louis story that elude me in the coverage of the Ferguson story. The population of St. Louis took a Detroit-style dip 20 years ago, but it sounds as if the city proper is on the rebound, with a new population that is ethnically diverse, even though I'm sure it takes some solid bucks to live in the city there now, as in most American cities.

So what we see in Ferguson is not entirely unlike we have seen here in suburban Farmers Branch, where the recent arrival en masse of working-class Latino families was met with hostility by the old all-white regime. The migration back into the city of affluent persons, however diverse they may be ethnically, is a form of gentrification that pushes poor people, mainly ethnic minorities, out into hostile terrain. Obviously that is a push coming to a shove, and something's got to give.

If you fly up to 20,000 feet and look down, you can sort out some of the larger shapes. There has been a great sorting of our society, a reordering of people into new classes. In that saga there has been joy, optimism, embittering snobbery, racism and oppression. Now perhaps the story is moving toward a final chapter which will have a lot to do with non-rich black people with their backs against an ultimate wall, as abandoned by many affluent African-Americans as they are by everybody else. It's complicated. You didn't see my grandfather going back to the old neighborhood. Maybe you did see my dad.

The Ferguson story is about all of us. We all know that. We know that Ferguson, Missouri, is emblematic of every city and suburb in the nation. We can't really sort out the country if we can't sort out Ferguson.

Don't ask me how that happens. Some of that manuscript hasn't been retrieved yet. I can't see the linkage yet between what's going on now and the resolution. And, by the way: I don't care what Amy says. She just wants to keep things quiet until she gets that book out. I know damn well the title is about me.

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