Today, it looks like any other Midwestern town. There are fast food restaurants, auto shops, drug stores, a laundromat, and rows of cookie-cutter houses. Cars fill the streets, people on their phones brush by on the sidewalk, and of course there’s the ice cream truck bell, the ubiquitous sound of summer. But if you walk around, you’ll notice remnants of a not so distant past.
I wandered into Canfield Apartments, a not especially impressive apartment complex that was eerily empty on a Friday afternoon. I stopped at the entrance and was greeted by this sign, but when I peeked around the edge, a sticker had been placed on it that read simply “cop watch”.
I looked down and there was a plaque cemented into the sidewalk, emblazoned with a name that is now all too familiar “Michael Brown”. The plaque reads “I would like the memory of Michael Brown to be a happy one, he left an afterglow of smiles when life was done. He leaves an echo whispering softly down the ways, of happy and loving times and bright and sunny days. He’d like the tears of those who grieve, to dry before the sun of happy memories that he left behind when life was done.” At first, it seems out of place, but the more you look around, the more you notice the little reminders. A patch of graffiti here, a mural there, deflated balloons, or stuffed animals.
But this isn’t about Michael Brown, and I’ll try not to rehash what happened in August, 2014, at least in this article. This is about a conversation I had with an unmovable, and at times colorful, Ferguson business owner. A business owner who was angry about what happened to his community, angry about a perceived failure from his government to act. A business owner who displayed that anger in block letters in his store front sign for all to see, for over 2 years, some say out of spite, others say out of passion.
His name is John Zisser, owner of Zisser Tire & Auto Services, located on the corner of West Florissant Ave. & Chambers Rd. John has been in the community for several years, and he was quite taken aback by the events in 2014. John says he’ll never forget the first night of the unrest, he was at home watching a sports game. Then from another room his wife yelled “John! John! Turn on the TV!” and he saw West Florissant, full of people and full of glass. He says he wanted to run out of the house and defend his store, but his wife advised against it, worried about his safety. But by the time John had seen the news, the damage was already done.
I ask John how he feels now about everything, and he sighs deeply. Then he says “I wish I never heard the name Michael Brown. That none of this would’ve happened”. It’s a feeling shared by many Americans, not because they want to forget, but because Ferguson reopened a wound that many Americans thought had been closed for 40 years. The reactions of ordinarily decent people after Ferguson, revealed that cultural resentment and racial prejudice had been growing in what most people assumed were tight-knit communities.
John says “it was sad to see what happened to the properties in the area.” Some businesses never returned to Ferguson. Lots where buildings once stood, but were razed to the ground during the unrest, still sit empty. Some stores have been boarded up, others have for-sale signs in their windows. But that’s not representative of the entire community.
John reassures me, “out of all the bad, there came some good.” The good John is referencing is the recent economic investment in the area. There are new projects in development, like the beauty shop across the street being rebuilt, while others are already completed like the Starbucks further down the street. Something I found notable was the Urban League under construction in the same space where a Quik-Trip, and later the burnout shell of a Quik-Trip, once stood. Fundraisers and a lot of community support allowed businesses to survive the immediate aftermath of the unrest. This isn’t to say that everything is great for everyone. John says that he took some loses and “what used to be my best property…” he hesitates, but then continues, “business has recovered, but it could always be better.”
I ask John what frustrates him, and he says “I wish the full story was out there, and people would take everything into context.” John tries to help me understand his feelings returning to his business after the unrest, he asks me if my home has ever been broken into, and if it had what crossed my mind whenever I went back. John says that if I’m like him, then my biggest concern was “can this happen again?” John says the hardest part wasn’t cleaning up after the unrest or trying to get insurance to pay for damages. John says the hardest part was coming to work every day after. John is scarred by what happened, not afraid necessarily, but more attentive than he once was. John says every time he watches the news he worries. “When something happens in Baltimore or Chicago like what happened here I just think ‘Oh crap, not again'”. There’s a lingering fear that the next event is going to spark a protest, and John’s business will once again be in danger.
Now, back to the infamous sign. I never asked John’s political affiliation, and he explicitly said “I don’t want to get political.” which was followed with the caveat “But I’m glad Nixon is the hell out of here! I can finally use my sign again!” I asked why even use his sign in the first place and he replied simply “I was mad!”
John said he never heard much from government officials, the last time he talked to the mayor of Ferguson was before the election, and he’d never heard from former Governor Nixon, who has drawn so much ire from John and other Ferguson residents. In my personal experiences with people in the community, outrage over lack of communication before, during, and after the unrest is a recurring theme.
I asked John what would he tell the outside community about Ferguson, or his shop in particular.
He said “We’re still here, and we’re not leaving…. Every place has its problems, in Des Peres this morning there was a stolen car.” he admits that maybe there were racial issues, even if they weren’t obvious to him. “Most of our customers are black, upwards of 51%. All of customers are just normal decent people, sometimes you run into an idiot, but that happens at fast food joints, gas stations, and everywhere really.” John contends that Ferguson, is just like anywhere else.
He ends our conversation with “things are gonna get better. I believe things are gonna get better.”
I sure hope so John.