Distance, whether measured in space or time, is often a friend to understanding. It clarifies where proximity distorts, allows us to grasp things in their entirety.
But distance has been of little help when it comes to understanding the strife and turmoil that have gripped Ferguson. I’ve been following the strange, exhausting chain of events from New York, where I’ve lived since January: the first reports of Michael Brown’s death; the protesting that gave way to looting; the bewildering images of policemen equipped as if they were in Eastern Ukraine rather than North St. Louis County; the odd spectacle of watching as my hometown became that most grotesque of commodities, a Topic of National Conversation; and now the long denouement, which has brought more violence but promises little healing. Being removed from the events in Ferguson has made them no easier to grasp. If I were watching from St. Louis, I would be just as bewildered.
This is in part because of where I’m from. I grew up mostly in West County, in Town and Country: predominantly white, prosperous, well insulated from the troubles that plague large portions of the city. I didn’t start traveling to the city on a regular basis until high school, when I attended St. Louis U. High, a wonderful and broadening experience that nevertheless saw me confine most of my activities to the central corridor that runs from West County to the riverfront—a pattern that still holds when I return home today.
And yet, like most county residents, I’ve always chosen to just say that I’m from St. Louis. It’s easier that way, not only because it’s cumbersome to explain our balkanized county to out-of-towners, but because “St. Louis,” to my mind, means something: it signifies a rich sense of history, a persevering and industrious spirit, and a culture of decency. Growing up in the region made me who I am. I carry St. Louis’ mark with me wherever I go, and I am proud of it.
The events in Ferguson, however, have exposed the cracks in my claim to being from St. Louis. When we talk about St. Louis as a single entity, we’re in many ways papering over a range of experiences that few of us have fully experienced. Watching the images of riot police and protestors and that burned out QuickTrip, I felt no sense of recognition. I couldn’t quite understand that all of this violence and mistrust and uncertainty was transpiring a mere twenty-minute drive from the house where I grew up. Being in St. Louis would have done nothing to make it more comprehensible, for my St. Louis is very different from the St. Louis being portrayed on the news. They sit on opposite sides of a great, awful fault line, one that we all know but which we prefer to ignore.
Ostensibly, that line is a little blurrier in New York than it is in St. Louis. Many of my friends here tout diversity when comparing New York to other cities. But I wonder about that diversity. I live in Crown Heights, a neighborhood in south Brooklyn that has long been populated mostly by West Indians and African-Americans. For decades, it’s struggled with a bad reputation, thanks in large part to a three-day riot that erupted in 1991 after tensions between blacks and Orthodox Jews grew violent.
But now gentrification is taking hold, and while I nod and say hello to black neighbors and squeeze into subway cars alongside them, the truth is that I’m no closer to knowing any people of color than I was in Town and Country. When I go to the Brooklyn Museum, most of the faces I see there are white, just as they are in the bars and restaurants in the neighborhood that I patronize — the same newly-opened bars and restaurants that have led The New York Times and other outlets to say that Crown Heights is “on the rise” or “coming back,” when in truth it’s transforming in a way that benefits one group of people to the exclusion of another, the fault line simply creeping a little farther south.
In a characteristically honest and perceptive speech delivered in 1965, Robert Kennedy said, “In many ways Wall Street is closer to London than it is to Harlem, a few miles uptown. … Americans in Appalachia are in many ways closer to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro than they are to society in which you and I live.” His insight, sadly, is no less relevant today, after a half century that we so badly want to believe has brought only progress. Indeed, Kennedy’s words may be truer in 2014 than they were in 1965. Both economists and our intuitions tell us that the fault line is only yawning wider. The internet transcends geography, allowing us to inhabit communities of the like-minded, the like-educated, the like-compensated; our money-soaked politics encourage angry tribalism; cynicism and apathy keep us from engaging.
It is, admittedly, cynicism that I’m feeling today, cynicism and fatigue. I usually consider myself an idealist, a believer in the American system even in these deflating times, but for today, at least, I am not so sure. I know there are people of goodwill on both sides of the divide who want to work together, and I know that progress comes slowly. But every time one of these awful events occur, it seems we talk about the need to open “a dialogue,” to have a “conversation.” These conversations remind us that the fault line is there. But do they bring us any closer to crossing it — and thereby, someday, erasing it? Or do we simply say the right things and then return to taking a longer route to Belleville to avoid East St. Louis, or to riding the subway in silence, our eyes averted?
These are difficult questions to answer, but even in our weariness and fear and despair, they must be asked. For that fault line, once again thrust into view, is not confined to St. Louis, or Chicago, or Crown Heights. It lives in our hearts, which now bear close examination.
Jim Santel is a graduate of St. Louis University High School and the University of Pennsylvania.