The City Next to Ferguson Is Even More Depressing

Kinloch, Missouri, was once a thriving African American community, but after years of poverty and corruption it's in danger of turning into a ghost town.

by Ben Westhoff
Jun 3 2015, 4:00am

All is not well in Kinloch, Missouri. Photos by the author

All is not well in Kinloch, Missouri. Photos by the author

Kinloch, Missouri, is an historic place. Located just northwest of St. Louis, adjacent to Ferguson, it was the first city in the state incorporated by blacks. When Theodore Roosevelt visited the local airfield in 1910, he became the first president to take a plane ride on one of those crazy boxy contraptions with bicycle wheels.

But though it once boasted more than 10,000 residents, Kinloch is in danger of falling off the map—literally. A whole grid of streets in the southwest part of town are unlabeled on Google Maps. When you take a real-life trip to visit them, you see power lines and paved streets there, but the homes are now rubble, and wilderness has overtaken nearly everything.

As of the last official US census in 2010, fewer than 300 people populated Kinloch. The place has a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max feel, with vagrants burning fires in bombed-out buildings, crater-sized potholes, and discarded semi trailers. There were once barber shops, chicken shacks, pharmacies, a YMCA, turkey farms, and even a cab company. B. B. King played a club here, called 12 Oaks, before it closed in the 50s. But now, beyond a salvage yard and an auto body shop, Kinloch doesn't have a single business, according to its city manager.

Ferguson is famous for Michael Brown's killing by a white police officer last August, and has subsequently been portrayed in the media as a poor, dangerous, kleptocracy. But compared to Kinloch, it's absolutely thriving with its spas, brewpubs, and manicured medians. Sure, the police there get a bad rap, but some locals say that Kinloch police make Ferguson cops look like social workers.

"They're crazy-ass motherfuckers," says a former Kinloch resident named Gene Lee, who lived here until the nearby airport bought him out in 1996. Today he's working on his truck, alongside a bunch of other old-timers in their friend's yard on Scott Avenue. That's Kinloch's main drag, not far from the Cotton Club, a coffee shop, and a history museum—all shuttered. The yard doubles as a junkyard, strewn with cars in various states of disrepair, old motors, and even a tractor.

Lee says he was arrested the previous evening for dumping trash, but claims he didn't do it. Residents painted a picture of a place where policing was even more out of control than Ferguson. (Kinloch has an annual average rate of 28.9 incidents of violent crime per 1,000 people, according to an April report from the Police Executive Research Foundation—six times the rate in Ferguson).

"They lock you up and tow your car for running a stop sign," Lee's friend CJ Jones said of local police. "Kinloch stopped me more times than Ferguson. Once you get to Ferguson, it's smooth sailing! Ferguson, they have to see you doing something wrong. Here, you just have to come through."

A mostly abandoned housing project. All photos by the author

Mostly, though, Kinloch is depressing. There's a sign promoting an historic district, but that's just an overgrown wall trumpeting the town's accomplishments, like "First Black-Owned Movie Theater." Across the street, someone decided to build a walk of fame a few years back, and even installed dozens of rectangular placeholders into the sidewalk. The problem is that they're all empty except for one, which celebrates former Mayor Keith Conway—who, in 2011, was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for allegedly using city funds for stuff like Caribbean cruises and paying his utility bills.

With so much history, it would be a tragedy if Kinloch faded away. So how did a place that was once so thriving become such a disaster? And is there any hope for it?

This tattered American flag flies above Kinloch's City Hall

Kinloch City Hall and Police Department are now housed in an old elementary school after Robert Hill, a convicted cocaine dealer, purchased the old city hall. (Locals shook their heads at that sale, but it was just another blip in the city's storied history of shady dealings.) I visited the current town hall one recent Wednesday only to find it closed, so I came back later and met with the city manager, Justine Blue.

Wearing a bouffant-style hairdo, Blue looks much younger than her 48 years. She also seems to be the only one who knows what's going on around here. For example, if you send a message to the city's gmail account, she'll answer.

Kinloch has had four mayors in the past five years, and the most recently elected one, Betty McCray, was barred from taking office after being accused of giving out favors for votes. (The alleged voter fraud centered on the charge that non-residents were voting. The case is still working its way through court.)

Believe it or not, squatters make up something of a voting bloc here; they don't leave when their leases end, instead simply continuing to cast ballots. These folks populate the housing projects you see everywhere—one of which is abandoned, and where the uncut grass goes up to your waist—and have a lot of chutzpah. The interim mayor, Evelyn Carter, only comes into the office "when it's necessary," according to Blue.

Kinloch's historic district

Blue disputes Gene Lee's account that he was unjustly arrested, but admits that local police profile people who drive trucks through town past dark. After all, why else would anyone come through if they didn't have garbage to unload? "We've caught a number of people in the act of dumping," she says. "They come under the cover of night and dump couches, entertainment centers, drywall, you name it."

Trash is undoubtedly a big problem, but like Ferguson, Kinloch has a reputation for recklessly imposing fines and fees to prop up its feeble city budget. Blue provided a copy of the city budget for last year, showing it collected about 16 percent of its $266,000 in revenue from court fees—most of which were from traffic. That's more than would be permitted under a bill recently passed by Missouri legislators limiting ticketing to 12.5 percent of general operating revenue. (The bill received bipartisan support in the wake of a Justice Department's report that found that Ferguson filled its coffers by unfairly ticketing and jailing poor blacks. The bill is awaiting Governor Jay Nixon's signature.)

Blue says she is unconcerned about the measure, as she is projecting Kinloch's ticketing revenue percentage will drop below the proposed threshold this year.

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It might seem pointless for a city this size to maintain its own fire department, police department, and city government when it's surrounded by other tiny, cash-strapped towns in the same boat. But that's just the way the dysfunctional St. Louis metro area does business.

Things weren't always this dire in the region: Around the start of the 20th century, St. Louis was the fourth-most populous city in the country. But as blacks arrived during the Great Migration, whites moved to the surrounding St. Louis County, which—for reasons too dumb to go into here—consists of 91 separate municipalities sporting names like Black Jack, Country Life Acres, and Beverly Hills. (Jonathan Franzen has a whole novel that's basically about how the city and county should merge.)

Of those 91, Kinloch might just be the poorest.

Among the city's woes are people who illegally dump trash.

By the time Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, St. Louis was hemorrhaging residents. Blacks began moving to the north part of St. Louis County—called North County—which kicked off another round of white flight toward distant exurbs. In recent years, this process has been accelerating: Majority white towns become majority black towns in the snap of a finger. At my kid's preschool, I've talked with young, middle-class parents who grew up in North County but wouldn't dream of living there now.

But traditional white flight isn't really the problem in Kinloch, at least not since its white residents broke off and started their own city next door in the 30s called Berkeley. (Blacks had their own school, and racist whites didn't want their taxes to go toward educating black people.) What really sunk Kinloch was when St. Louis began buying up the city's homes in the 80s for a proposed expansion of the local airport that never actually happened. The population has yet to recover from the exodus.

This housing project has seen several fires.

Still, as grim as Kinloch seems, former residents have fond memories of the place.

"Take the name Kinloch and stop with the first three letters: Kin," says Gene Lee. "We all kin, or close to it." Iconic comedian Dick Gregory is from here (he has a street named for him), as is California Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Hell, the rapper Huey (the "Pop, Lock, and Drop It" guy) still lives here, according to Blue.

CJ Jones says he was run out of town two years ago because the cops hounded him so much. But he remembers a Rockwellian time when "you didn't have to leave Kinloch, they had everything. And I'm talking about the 90s!"

No one's naïve enough to think that era is coming back anytime soon. But Blue and others still invested in the place are optimistic for Kinloch's future, thanks largely to a new, $100 million distribution center for Schnucks, the local grocery store chain, which is set to start construction this summer. Unless you're from St. Louis, you probably haven't heard of Schnucks, but it's everywhere around here. It's somewhat surprising they're moving in so soon after the Ferguson unrest, but it makes strategic sense considering the airport is just on the other side of the freeway.

A vacated street on the Southwest side of town

NorthPark, the industrial park the facility will inhabit, hasn't seen much action since its conception a decade ago—in fact, local urban farmers began to raise crops on the land. When the developers showed up, they told the farmers they had to leave but, astonishingly, gave them their own nearby plots, with an irrigation system to boot.

In any case, this grocery distribution center is really happening: Earth movers are moving earth as we speak, and it's expected to bring in about 450 jobs. There's no guarantee Kinloch residents will get them, but, hey, you can't beat the commute. "We have a poor community and many don't have transportation, so they'd be able to walk to work," Blue, the city manager, says. Schnucks has even promised to donate $20,000 annually to the local school district, and since the grocer moved ahead with the project, another tenant has signed up for space in the office park as well.

Kinloch's churches are another source of vitality. People drive in from all over the county to attend the six houses of worship here. One, Devotional Baptist, has been displaced by the distribution center, but will relocate to a prime Kinloch spot on North Hanley Road. "There will be good hope for us there," says Reverend Earbie Bledsoe, who is 80.

Bledsoe is less optimistic about Kinloch itself after living in a nearby, unincorporated town called Robertson, which was thriving and predominantly African-American but no longer exists thanks to the expansion of the airport. (Buyouts were common after former airliner TWA moved its hub to St. Louis in 1982 and air traffic swelled, but when American Airlines swallowed up TWA in 2001, the number of flights declined precipitously.)

Bledsoe suspects that besides filling somebody's pockets, development in NorthPark won't actually benefit local residents.

"I have a farmer's background. Commercial business is like cocklebur weed; once it gets in there, it smothers everything else out," he says, referencing the local plant that can grow six feet tall. Schnucks spokesman Paul Simon had no comment, but referred me to the company's official statement, which quotes St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger as saying, "I commend Schnucks' commitment to building this facility in Kinloch. It's projects like this that will help revitalize our community."

In his 43 years of preaching, Bledsoe has had a front-row seat to the city's decline. He still remembers a time when black people could safely raise their families here, safe from the racism that surrounded them.

"The police never killed nobody, they didn't have to," he says, referencing Ferguson. "Now, in the black neighborhoods, they just bottle us up to do whatever they want to."

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