Ferguson: Race and the Inner-Ring Suburb

2014-09-06T11:56:09-04:00August 14, 2014|

by Daniel J. McGraw 

When I am talking to people in the Cleveland area, and they ask where I’m from, I tell them Euclid, and they sort of make a face and mutter, “Oh.”  You know, one of those places that has gone from nondescript suburb to sort of a crappy one over time, a place that never had an “it” factor even in its best days, and over time has gotten old and weathered and beaten up a bit.

But when I talk to folks who grew up in Euclid about the present day situation in their hometown, their reaction is a little more emotive in a pissed off way. “Have you seen it lately?” they ask shaking their heads. And the question is not about how the roads are or quality of the bars on East 185th St.; by “it,” my white friends and I are talking about “them.”  And them would be “those people” who we see walking around who are not of our color.

When I go back and drive around, I don’t see that much difference in a physical sense: the post WWII tract housing is still as boring as it was when I was growing up in the 1970s and the retail area around East 222 St. and Lakeshore Blvd. is still full of stores and there are lots of people shopping. The parks are nice and people play in softball leagues and swim at the beaches.

But if you are white you do see the difference immediately. The people living in those houses and shopping at those stores and picnicking at those parks are often African American. And for those who grew up in a different era, those different faces stand out. In 1970, Euclid was homogenous white suburban America at its core, with less than one percent African-American residents. The latest numbers put Euclid’s African-American population at about 52 percent.

[blocktext align=”left”]Because what is happening these days is no longer white flight; that ended decades ago. What is happening now is “black flight,” African-Americans moving from the central city wastelands to the inner-ring suburbs.[/blocktext] In the past few days, as I’ve watched the events unfold in Ferguson, MO, I think of Euclid and other inner-ring suburbs across the country that are dealing with substantial social demographic change and the upheaval that goes with it. In Ferguson, an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, was shot by a police officer and as the details emerge, Mr. Brown appears to have been unarmed and showing little probable cause for even being arrested.

All we know for sure at this point is that the young man was stopped for walking in the middle of the street by an officer, and Brown was then shot multiple times and killed. The investigation is continuing amid the controversy.

A civil rights lawyer called it “an execution in broad daylight,” and there have been protests and police arming themselves like army rangers and looting of stores and even a couple of journalists arrested in a McDonald’s while they were trying to recharge their laptops. It is a powder keg that may blow up more than it already has.

What amazes me as I look at this Ferguson incident from afar, is why this racial powder keg in the American suburbs hasn’t blown sooner. Because what is happening these days is no longer white flight; that ended decades ago. What is happening now is “black flight,” African-Americans moving from the central city wastelands to the inner-ring suburbs. And many in those suburbs are still hanging on to a notion of the upwardly striving idyll, the hard-work-in-the-factory and mow-the-lawn mentality that never really existed that much in the first place.

Ferguson and Euclid are very much alike. Single family home building and redlining by banks made these places where blue-collar whites could live and work amongst each other without those blacks from the inner city whom many whites sought to escape. There were jobs at places like Lincoln Electric in Euclid and Emerson Electric in Ferguson, and freeways that took you in and out quickly.

But over time, the younger folks didn’t see how great this staid suburban lifestyle really was, the redlining eased up a bit, housing rentals became more abundant, and minorities moved in. The population got older and poorer over time, and suburbs like these were unaccustomed and even hostile to the changes. They went from thinking about parking spots at shopping malls to food pantries and public transportation.

Ferguson was 85 percent white in 1980, and is now 29 percent white, almost identical to the Euclid numbers. The main high schools in each city are now more than 75 percent African American. But even with a majority of the population African American, both Euclid and Ferguson’s city council and school boards are white by substantial margins. Both cities have a poverty rate of about 20 percent. And with higher poverty comes higher crime rates, more need for social services, different educational programs, and a police presence that is very different than when most residents were pulling eight hour shifts at the factory and mowing their lawns on the weekends.

The problem is that these suburbs used to be insulated from the problems they used to associate with the inner city: poverty, social disorder, drugs, and violence. And their business and political leadership – mostly white – often harkens back to “what it was” and how they need to get back there. And for a lot of the population, the good old days ended when the blacks moved in.

And this is where they miss the point, and where that “have you seen it lately” comes into play. I don’t know about Ferguson, but Euclid started going downhill when a lot of the factory jobs left 20 years or so ago and the population declined. Euclid Square Mall opened in 1977, but most of the retail had left by the mid-2000s. Housing prices declined and many are underwater with respect to appraisal values.

Many whites point to these declines as having taken place when the race of the city changed, but those changes were happening in other urban areas without any race factor as well  When jobs go, income levels decline, poverty increases, and all the problems that come with those changes come into play. Housing prices went down to a large extent because of the burst in the housing bubble and bad lending practices, and that didn’t just happen in Euclid and Ferguson. Suburban shopping malls were closing and being torn down all over the country because too many Americans found them inconvenient.

Politically, these former white blue-collar suburbs find themselves in a sort of a no man’s land. Their union affiliation, which as they grew up made them mostly Democrat,  turned Republican as they aged. With increased minority population and higher poverty, they are leaning Dem again. But neither party is paying much attention to the inner-ring suburbs on the racial change cusp: these older suburbs have older white voters who are dying off, and younger minority voters who aren’t voting much. Neither group has much money, and therefore, little clout.

It is not a situation that shows much hope or understanding at this point. These inner-ring suburbs are becoming flash points given our American racial disparity obsession that shows no signs of decline. Blacks complain police unfairly target them with racial profiling, stopping them in their cars and and questioning them when they are walk down the street. Whites blame the blacks for the increase in Dollar Stores and decrease in property values.

Whites see the looting of the convenience stores in Ferguson and are horrified that people would do such a thing. Some of my black friends don’t like it much either, but they “understand” why, because of the pent-up frustration coursing through the veins.

And in this mess a young man near St. Louis was shot and killed. While no one knows exactly what the circumstances were at this point, I can say with certainty that the racial tensions in places like Euclid and Ferguson have been building for some time. Because race was why these places existed and grew in the first place, and race is now being blamed for their downfall.

And one thing I’ve learned over the years is that racial attitudes are not based in any real facts, but on perception. You see what you want to see. And these days, in these aging suburbs, both sides see things very differently. Those views are not going to change any time soon.

Daniel J. McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons, Saoshyant.


  1. Scripty August 14, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    Nice article, good research on the demos. I live in S. Euclid and grew up in Parma. I too have heard the “the neighborhood isn’t what it once was” as code for “blacks are moving in”. I do not see the east side of Cleveland and the county as anything of a powder keg like the Missouri situation, where it seems to be obvious internal racism and negligence on the police force. Cleveland had our riots in the 60’s, things are not perfect, but I think living and working side by side for 50 years, the east side – things have progressed where most issues are socio-economic and not racial. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some embedded racism especially among old people. The inner ring families I live with, that are young and with kids, seem much more better than my old neighborhood on the other side of town. People elect their representation. It’s time for all of us to be better educated on understanding we need to keep a better on eye on city hall and our safety forces, or they will not represent our best interests. I hope the Missouri people can repair their down without any further damage.

    • slengel January 5, 2015 at 6:12 pm

      Scripty, you’re in denial. St. Louis and Cleveland are two of the most comparable cities/metro areas in the country, and the social, racial and evolutionary dynamics are remarkably similar. To say that race relations are any better or worse in Cleveland than in St. Louis is ignorant and false. America has a long way to go, and perhaps the Rust Belt can lead the change.

  2. EdwardofEuclid08251988 August 14, 2014 at 11:13 pm

    I’ve been a lifelong resident of Euclid for 26 years (as of August 25th coming up). Fortunately for me, I grew up in a lakefront neighborhood and still live in there to this day. While the neighborhood I live in is in solid shape, I witnessed and grew up with the changes in demographics, but personally didn’t bother me. However, I do remember friends of ours who live in Lake County sharply criticizing us for living in Euclid. Yes, as a child, I remember Euclid being very suburban, and was the epitome of 1950s suburbia. Now the city has very much urbanized, and is faced with the challenges of an urbanized suburb.

    All the “suburbanites,” either the elders who live in Euclid, or those who used to live in Euclid definitely use the code words/phrases for the new demographic, such as “riff raff,” and “how the city is not the same as it was 20+ years ago.” Honestly, it’s bothered me because I’m very pro-Euclid, and the issues that encompass Euclid and Cleveland are what influenced me to pursue a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Urban Planning. Cities all over the world are always going to change, and it is prudent for cities to be ready to anticipate those changes instead of reacting to the changes.

    Another point I’d like to present: Look at Cleveland. The unique challenges that Cleveland is facing, yet still has trendy neighborhoods attracting younger generations. Also, look at three inner-ring suburbs that border Cleveland that were able to adapt to changes in diversity, such as Cleveland Heights, Lakewood, and Shaker Heights. What can Euclid learn from those three inner-ring suburbs? Or was Euclid that much of an epitome of “1950s suburbia,” while Cleveland/Shaker Heights and Lakewood were more embracing to a more “urban” way of living, thus accepting such changes?

    • Practice Man August 15, 2014 at 11:43 am

      I think your comments about Lakewood, Cleveland Hts. and Shaker are bit too rosy (“able to adapt to changes in diversity”). Talk to people who spent their whole lives living in Lakewood…they talk like Euclid people talk.

      Even though Euclid has this incredible advantage of having about 4 miles of lakefront, it was built to service a blue collar, post World War II work force…and its housing stock reflects this. It was built BEFORE we realized that Lake Erie is something more than a toilet, that realization coming in the late 60’s. Euclid was a fully constructed city by the late 50’s. Even though the northern sliver of the city remains nice, middle and upper class, the vast majority of the city is Maple Heights…bungalows, the kind of housing that educated, upwardly mobile 20 somethings don’t like, don’t want. Mix that in with the race issues and it’s hard to be bullish on Euclid.

      I don’t disagree with Mr. McGraw’s observations about race tensions in place like Euclid, but the parallel story is that the blue collar ladder to success (which Euclid thrived on), is no longer a viable path for most who might aspire to it.

  3. Michael Dover August 15, 2014 at 10:01 am

    Thank you for the well-written and timely article. I am hoping someone will follow-up with research and writing on the militarization of police forces; a local angle on the issues raised in today’s Times by ELIZABETH R. BEAVERS and MICHAEL SHANK.

    On the larger question of decline of “suburbs” in industrial counties, all of this may be evidence for something I called the “suburban-central city co-decline thesis.” In my dissertation in social work and sociology from That School Up North, this “I was a kid from Northeast Ohio” (Maple Heights until age five) author, wrote about the social system of real property in Ohio’s urban areas, 1950-2000. I argued that “urban disadvantage developed prior to, not following, court-ordered busing and the accelerated white flight of the late 1960s….it was the pull of educational advantages in the suburbs, rather than the subsequent push of heightened racial conflict, which explains the origins of urban-suburban inequality….In Ohio, however, an urban disadvantage existed by 1957. Per capita total local general educational expenditures in Dayton, Cleveland, and Columbus ranged from $47 to $52, while outside central city areas expenditures ranged from $78 to $94.”

    Seen in another big picture way, Thomas Bier’s work is instructive (my diss, pp. 66-67). : “Thomas Bier, of the Housing Policy Research Center at Cleveland State University, has traced the long-term history of Cleveland by dividing it into two centuries. He typologized the 19th century as “building.” During the 1800s, there were no suburbs, he pointed out, there was only Cleveland, carved from a lakeside wilderness. He summarized the 20th century in a devastatingly simple sentence: “Abandonment followed building” {Bier, 1999 #2199: 62}. This abandonment, Bier argued, found its roots in the founding of suburbs early in the 20th century, when wealthy citizens of Cleveland abandoned their city in protest over the lack of zoning regulations which could protect their luxurious Euclid Avenue homesteads against unplanned commercial and retail intrusion. They founded suburbs, which had zoning and property deed restrictions, as enclaves of controlled development. The middle-class followed, in order to enjoy these and other benefits, such as “distance from racial minorities” {Bier, 1999 #2199: 63}. This legacy of abandonment and disinvestment, Bier found, requires that “much of the city must be rebuilt” {Bier, 1999 #2199: 63}. This a prescription similar to Henry Louis Taylor’s call for the radical reconstruction of the urban built environment {Taylor, 2001 #1986}. Bier argued that re-building may prove to characterize the 3rd century of Cleveland’s history, and that some re-building has already begun.”

    But relevant here are these observations: “The 1950s was the first decade of decline for Cleveland. By 1960, the population had declined to 876,050, the population per square mile to 11,527, and the county’s suburban population had increased to 771,845, nearly equaling that of Cleveland……White population shifts accelerated in the early 1960s, but were already in progress during the 1950-1960 period….These population shifts took place before the Hough riots of 1966, the election of Carl Stokes as the nation’s first big city black mayor in 1967, and the further racial disturbances of 1968. Arguably, space and place {housing stock and perceived educational advantage) drove these shifts as much as race.”

    As of 2000, I observed: “A few other points should be kept in mind when the ensuing quantitative analysis compares these cities to the areas of their counties outside the cities. First of all, the suburbs are not all suburban in nature. Some are industrial cities themselves to a greater or lesser degree, especially in Cuyahoga county. Second, despite the disparities which may be apparent in property valuation and other aspects, the so-called “inner ring” suburbs are themselves in decline to varying degrees….The implications of this are that declining cities eventually bring inner ring suburbs down with them, and even impact upon established outlying suburbs that aren’t on the leading edge of urban sprawl. Such a thesis might be called the suburban-central city co-decline thesis. Such a thesis flies in the face of the implications of a competing theory known as the suburban exploitation thesis {Neenan, 1973 #556}. According to the suburban exploitation thesis, several aspects of public policy subsidize suburbs at the expense of the central city, including patterns of highway and street construction, which involve the demolition of taxable property from the central city and the concentration of property tax exempt institutions in the city {Neenan, 1973 #556}.47 The suburbs were also subsidized by the mortgage interest deduction, the property tax deduction, state-set utility rates subsidizing the cost of extending electricity service to outer lying areas, and favorable infrastructure investments in suburban parts of urban regions {Richmond, 1999 #1081}. “

  4. Dan McGraw August 18, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    Ideastream did a follow-up story on inner ring suburbs and race, and focused on the number of African-American police on the Euclid force, a number I didn’t get. Incredible how strikingly similar they are in Euclid OH to Ferguson MO (3 of 53):

    “But on a police force of 92 officers, only five are African-American, according to Euclid Police Chief Tom Brickman. He said those disparities have been reflected in who has taken took the police civil service exam. ‘We weren’t finding an extremely high number of minority candidates that were interested in becoming police officers,’ he said.’“We would end up with a much higher number of the traditional white male applicant.’ ”


    • Practice Man August 18, 2014 at 9:56 pm

      Well, police work does not have high numbers of African-Americans in big cities either. Cleveland PD was 27% AA in 2000 and I’d bet based on what I’ve seen of recent classes as they train around the Justice Center, that the number is lower today…and Cleveland puts a huge effort into minority recruitment. It may surprise some that the need for a police force that looks like the city it serves is a widely held opinion within police ranks. But finding AA’s who qualify for the job and want the job is a challenge.

  5. D. Holmes August 21, 2014 at 2:27 am

    I’ve been following the Ferguson story with great interest and alarm. I’ve been wondering about the implications for other rust belt cities, including Milwaukee which has been featured in many articles over the past year based various measures of segregation. Two things have struck me regarding Milwaukee in the context of Ferguson. One is that there are no similar inner-ring suburbs in Milwaukee. The highest percentage of African American residents in 2010 was the 28% in Brown Deer. Two other inner ring suburbs had slightly more than 10% African American populations. There have been significant increases in the suburban population of Hispanic residents with six suburbs now having between 7 and 28% Hispanic residents. The second thing that struck me regarding Ferguson vs Milwaukee was the stunningly low voting turnout by African Americans (I heard a figure of 6% quoted on one show) which appears to be partially responsible for the political under representation.. In Milwaukee, 87% of registered voters participated in the 2012 elections.. It is curious that with Milwaukee’s various “most segregated” rankings that there is such a striking difference in voter participation.

  6. Brian September 2, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    I think the real barrier to what I would call ‘FHA mortgaged union class’ inner ring suburbs is the quality and uniformity of housing. These suburbs were the first generation of housing built in large developments using industrialized techniques and costed down to the cost of the last nail. Unlike most earlier housing, postwar housing was designed with a limited design life, the term ‘builder grade’ entered the lexicon, and mile upon mile were built in the same year, designed to wear out in the same year. The houses and physical infrastructure is now at the end of its design life, and with the exceptions of the few quirky mid-century modern houses that will find fans, there are just not enough people willing to spend the money to restore a cracker box ranch with aluminum wiring, when they can have a solid brick Italianate or quality old-growth wood craftsman bungalow in a different neighborhood for the same price. Whereas cities that developed over time can replace failed bits and rebuild infill housing piecemeal, these suburbs in their uniformity, and indeed the second and third rings as well, are designed in such a logical way that no piece will break before another, and thus will go to pieces all at once.

    Interestingly, I think inner ring suburbs are facing the same problem as Eastern European cities. To solve their post war housing crisis, every Soviet and Eastern European city had mile upon mile of low quality, low rise apartments built, with a 50 year design life. Although the density is different, inner ring suburbs could look to places such as Marzahn and other similar areas facing similar pressures as a way forward.

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