How Ferguson became Ferguson: Urgent Doc Spanish Lake Tracks a St. Louis Suburb’s Shift from White to Black


How did it get this way? That’s one question left un-addressed in too much of the coverage of the clashes between police and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. How, in a generation, did a majority white suburb of St. Louis become majority black, mostly broke, and bereft of opportunity? And how did the white minority hang onto all the elected offices?

The exact answers don’t come in Spanish Lake, a timely heartbreaker of a localized-history doc from first-timer Phillip Andrew Morton. But the film is still revelatory and urgently relevant. (The film will be available on demand and in some theaters in the coming weeks, although since Ferguson the filmmakers have had a difficult time finding a St. Louis theater willing to show it.)

Since the ’90s, Morton’s hometown of Spanish Lake, Missouri – just eight miles northeast of Ferguson – has undergone a similar demographic shift: From 80 per cent white in the early ’90s to 80 per cent black in 2010. The film charts that history, via expert testimony and old news footage, back to the 1950s, when middle-class white families thrived American Dream-style at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Much of what happened next is familiar from many American cities: White flight, ill-conceived housing projects, redlining realtors, and the sense of regular people of all races being shoved around a region by forces bigger than them. The St. Louis-specific angle: The migration of African-Americans, often impoverished, to the suburbs north of the city, where the apartments were going up. By the early 2000s, we’re told, local police were fielding 3,000 calls a year from one Spanish Lake housing complex.

That history gets told by experts and guessed at by regular folks throughout Spanish Lake. More on it below. It’s the talk of those non-experts that distinguishes the film. Morton, who is white, has a way of getting other white people to dish. He captures something rarely seen onscreen: The way many white people act just before they say something about race that they think maybe they shouldn’t. It’s an aggrieved fearfulness, a put-upon hesitance, the certainty that they should feel free to speak what feels true to them – and the corresponding certainty that they’ll be shouted down for doing so.

Morton’s most remarkable interviews come at a reunion party of white Spanish Lakers. In a sunny park, often holding beers, these ex-pats speak of “Laker” pride, of how things used to be, of the high crime rates that have given this lush rural suburb its unsavory rep.

“I don’t know if I can say this on tape,” one woman says. Her eyes flit about before she adds, “When the first blacks moved in, that’s when the fighting started.”

Soon, though, she’s relaxed enough to guffaw at the memory of local whites shooting black Santa decorations off of a roof.

Morton’s subjects often speak about what they suspect happened – how the government, or the realtors, or somebody flooded their town with people not like them. Former residents make the property-values argument: White families had to move, to protect their investments. A woman at the reunion describes a neighborhood pact: Her family – and others – vowing not to sell to blacks. They all did sell to black families, eventually, but you can’t tell from her face whether today she thinks this was right or wrong.

Like most of the Morton’s interviewees, she agrees that not all black folks or Section 8’ers are troublemakers, conceding, “And there’s white trash, too.” Another guy lays it right out there: “There’s a Spanish Lake cliché I grew up hearing: ‘I don’t have a problem with black people, it’s niggers.’” He says it with disgust, not for the African-Americans but for the white people he knows feel that way – and won’t quite admit it.

Fortunately, not all the white people in Spanish Lake relish such dispiriting memories. “I’m the salt stuck in the pepper now,” laughs a scraggle-bearded guy who still lives in town. In contrast to the reunion Lakers, we see him at home. Old Glory flies on the front of his house, and he doesn’t seem uncomfortable in his skin or on his block. An old-timer Morton interviews later is even more sanguine: After describing how the blacks who moved in around her would always help her with her husband and his wheelchair, she asks, “Now, why would I move out of here when I have neighbors like that?”

As Morton’s talking-head experts attest, the truth of how Spanish Lake shifted is predicated on one great irony: The apartment complexes that eventually brought thousands of St. Louis’ Section 8 residents north only exist because of the Tea Party-style anti-government ethos of previous generations of Spanish Lake whites. Old Lakers refused to let the town be incorporated, meaning it never had its own governing body – and little in the way of social services. Wealthier communities nearby, fearing threats to their homogeneity, passed laws forbidding the construction of apartments. When St. Louis tore down its notorious Pruitt-Igoe projects, much of the mostly black population moved north to high-density housing in places like Spanish Lake – and landlords guaranteed payment under the Section 8 system felt little compunction to vet renters or perform maintenance. Whites left, often urged along by realtors. Even the Taco Bell closed.

Lots of Morton’s subjects point out that the problem is less racial than it is economic. It’s the concentration of impoverished citizens – and too-few parents — in a town without enough jobs and services. Still, the doc would be improved by more black voices. The ones Morton includes are heartening. Today, community-minded residents are pushing back against crime, and several recent development projects are promising. (The Scientologists are, if nothing else, okay neighbors.) The film closes with an especially affecting encounter: Morton returns to his childhood home to meet the African-American woman who currently lives there. After all the there-goes-the-neighborhood talk from Morton’s white interviewees, this is a relief – she’s done wonders with the place. Spanish Lake is a heartbreaker, but it’s got hope in it.