The Story in Ferguson, Missouri, Hits Close to Home

Categories: Schutze

little_bastard_smaller.jpg
Anchor&Plume
Somewhere between Neighborhood Gardens and Ferguson, Missouri, chapters are missing.

Something in the Ferguson, Missouri, story I keep looking for, waiting. My dad's family is from St. Louis. Sorta. So anyway today I found an op-ed piece in The New York Times that maybe gets to part of it or somewhere in that general direction.

Jeff Smith, a professor of urban policy at The New School in New York and a former Missouri state senator, begins to weave the story of Ferguson back into the longer narrative of St. Louis. That's what I wanted to know.

My grandfather was a German immigrant who came to Missouri alone at age 8 at the end of the 19th century, sold into indenture on a Missouri farm long after indenture was illegal. When he was 12, according to family legend, a black man on the farm told him about the Civil War and how people couldn't own people in America any more. My grandfather ran off to St. Louis, put himself through high school unloading barges on the levee and became a successful small businessman with a huge family.

He despised all things German, understandably. St. Louis had a big German immigrant population centered in a poor part of town. In St. Louis there were ethnic pejorative terms for German immigrants -- the "scrubby Dutch" and "step-scrubbers" -- the only ethnic minority ever discriminated against for being too tidy. Hey, this is America. We'll find something.

The first thing my grandfather did when he got money was move out of the German area. He was American, by God. By the time I was sent alone to St. Louis as a little boy, my father had already explained to me that his side of the family came from Germany, way back. So my ear caught it when I heard my grandfather use the pejorative terms for Germans. Nothing was more disappointing, in his book, than when a girl of good family went across town to marry some scrubby Dutch boy, some step-scrubber from the wrong side of the tracks.

Eventually the entire family moved out of the city to the county, where people were not German or black or Italian or Lithuanian. By God, they were white.

When my mother died in February 2002, my father began preparing for his own death, which would come six months later, by throwing out everything he considered personal or sentimental. He was like that. He gathered most of it in black plastic contractor bags, which were to be taken to the landfill by us. One bag was full of my mother's unpublished manuscripts, a life's work.

My wife was horrified. She rescued the bag of rubber-banded typewritten pages, all of which went eventually to my sister, Peggy Shearn, an artist in Chicago. She read them. Some she sent to her daughter Amy Shearn, a novelist in Brooklyn.

Amy was especially struck by one piece of work, a novella based on my parents' young lives as New Deal-era social activists in St. Louis. It's called "The Little Bastard." I haven't read it. My niece keeps assuring me the title is not a reference to me.

Amy says the story is a moving evocation of young adults living in a privately developed experimental low-income apartment complex called "Neighborhood Gardens" in the late '30s, early '40s. Neighborhood Gardens became a model for public housing, first in St. Louis and then around the country, with low-rise sort of European-looking architecture centered on an open courtyard. That model was abandoned later in favor of high-rise public housing centers like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, which opened in 1954 and was demolished 20 years later under circumstances that are still controversial.

My mother talked to us when we were kids about Neighborhood Gardens. I think it was her fondest memory, very Bo-ho and arty for a girl from Wichita, Kansas. They ate spaghetti and drank cheap wine with a neighbor, William Inge, a St. Louis critic who went on to become an iconic 20th century American playwright (Bus Stop, Picnic, Come Back, Little Sheba). My mother formed a lifelong pen-pal friendship with Martha Gellhorn, offspring of an old St. Louis progressive family who went on to become a noted journalist and one of the wives of Ernest Hemingway.

My niece was so impressed with the literary merit of "Little Bastard" that she took it to market, seeking to have it published posthumously (posthumous of my mother, not Amy, obviously). And she has succeeded. In September, Anchor & Plume publishers will bring out "The Little Bastard" by Frances Schutze. My sister did the cover. I haven't read it yet. I wait with bated breath, on pins and needles, thin ice, however you want to put it. It's my mother back from the grave. How would you feel?

In pitching the project and helping get it ready for publication, Amy did a lot of research on Neighborhood Gardens. Her work provides intriguing insights into that whole era in American progressivism and cities. Did I mention that Neighborhood Gardens, arty and cool as it may have been, was racially segregated? Did I have to tell you that?

Not only was I not surprised, the first thought that occurred to me was: "Yeah, of course it was whites-only at first, but eventually did they have to let those scrubby Dutch in?"

As Jeff Smith explains in the piece in the Times today, the entire history of St. Louis and the suburban realm around it is the saga of Americans lifting themselves up out of humble beginnings, moving on up and on out. My own observation would be that the process always enabled recently upward people to lord it over the still humble, on a spectrum that had the knife of racism as its far bloody edge.

There are still entire chapters in the St. Louis story that elude me in the coverage of the Ferguson story. The population of St. Louis took a Detroit-style dip 20 years ago, but it sounds as if the city proper is on the rebound, with a new population that is ethnically diverse, even though I'm sure it takes some solid bucks to live in the city there now, as in most American cities.

So what we see in Ferguson is not entirely unlike we have seen here in suburban Farmers Branch, where the recent arrival en masse of working-class Latino families was met with hostility by the old all-white regime. The migration back into the city of affluent persons, however diverse they may be ethnically, is a form of gentrification that pushes poor people, mainly ethnic minorities, out into hostile terrain. Obviously that is a push coming to a shove, and something's got to give.

If you fly up to 20,000 feet and look down, you can sort out some of the larger shapes. There has been a great sorting of our society, a reordering of people into new classes. In that saga there has been joy, optimism, embittering snobbery, racism and oppression. Now perhaps the story is moving toward a final chapter which will have a lot to do with non-rich black people with their backs against an ultimate wall, as abandoned by many affluent African-Americans as they are by everybody else. It's complicated. You didn't see my grandfather going back to the old neighborhood. Maybe you did see my dad.

The Ferguson story is about all of us. We all know that. We know that Ferguson, Missouri, is emblematic of every city and suburb in the nation. We can't really sort out the country if we can't sort out Ferguson.

Don't ask me how that happens. Some of that manuscript hasn't been retrieved yet. I can't see the linkage yet between what's going on now and the resolution. And, by the way: I don't care what Amy says. She just wants to keep things quiet until she gets that book out. I know damn well the title is about me.


Sponsor Content

My Voice Nation Help
27 comments
sjscheib
sjscheib

My grandparents were Swedes (that's Squareheads to you) in Seattle and Olympia, WA. My maternal grandmother had managed to leave her own indentured servitude behind in northern Sweden (it was to her very-much-older brother, a baker who had her hitched up to a flour-grinding stone powered by human beings, not oxen). After years of hard work, she and my grandfather ended up in a lovely cottage in Palo Alto, CA, with geraniums in the yard, and no "kalt" (cold)--she loved it. Soon after my grandfather died, and she moved in with my parents, sister, and me, I accepted a date to the Palo Alto High School graduation night--with a Japanese boy: the AFS exchange student from Hokkaido! My mother said it bothered my grandmother. Even at that age, I could kind of understand that.

gm0622
gm0622

What about the signs that said "Irish need not apply"

It seems that most folks have managed to work themselves out of the modes of discrimination.

Some just want to wallow in it and claim victimhood.

shamwow
shamwow

Jim, I expect that to be 100% true. But, in all honesty, what percentage of the American population (educated or not) do you think can make that same statement?

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

hopefully the title isn't about you, Jim.  But when the book not titled after you comes out, I do hope it is more affordable than the book you actually wrote!!

shamwow
shamwow

It has become such a taboo to speak in honest terms about the disparities among races, cultures, and financial class. Sadly these discussions take place quietly among like minded people who feed on similar views. This has led to a lack of opposing ideals and sincere, open minded debate. hatred is alive and well and living in many people you know. Until it is acceptable to speak the harsh and uncomfortable truth we as a society will only widen the divide between the us and them.

ivyhall
ivyhall

What a coincidence, I was just thinking about your mother and her correspondence with Martha Gellhorn the other day...good thing your niece and wife didn't let those papers get thrown away.

Metroplexual
Metroplexual

@Jim

There is an alternative meaning to what you call the "Scrubby Dutch".  People in South St. Louis were called :"Scubbin' Dutch" because they kept the concrete steps of their homes very clean.

They scrubbed them white.  It was not considered by most to be a racial or ethnic slur.  Many homes, apartment buildings (4plexes) had white concrete steps down to a walkway to the 

sidewalk.  South St. Louis in those days was very tidy.


By the way not to blame the victim or anything but if people would learn to stop and present no physical resistance when confronted by the police the odds of them being injured or killed go practically to 0.  


I was taught by my parents to politely surrender to the police and let the the system work.  Often I got out of some problems because I was calm and polite and didn't antagonize them.  


You may call that racist thinking or say I'm not an oppressed minority being hassled all the time by the police but it's not meant to offend just good advice to teach your kids.


I hope that justice is served when all the facts are presented whatever they may prove to be.


ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin topcommenter

"The Little Bastard"  That should be the tagline banner ala your Get Off My Lawn series

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

Journalism alone is not enough to help us sort out our story. Literature is necessary.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@carpe-clue

People I hang with are not afraid to talk about any of that. If you get too far into the "disparities among races," some of them will ask if you mean Honey Boo Boo, but we can handle that, too. 

noblefurrtexas
noblefurrtexas topcommenter

@Metroplexual On average, there are only 404 police shootings in the entire United States in a year.  This contrasts with the many thousands of black-on-black shootings in the country every year. 


I'd say it is not the police officers who are out of control. It's the black community killing each other in Chicago, Houston, New York, Miami, L.A., and all over the country.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@Metroplexual

Yeah, I know it came from step-scrubbing. But I can assure you it was not a compliment. People who sent their women out to the stoop to scrub the steps every day were viewed as foreign, European, and inferior. For a long time, way before Hitler, Germans were viewed in a lot of this country as louts, and, by the way, in the 19th century blond was not beautiful  It's very difficult for me to imagine anyone not thinking of me as beautiful, but were you have it. People were weird.

JustSaying
JustSaying

@bmarvel  True, but good luck with that. Nobody has time for a Russian novelist when there is a marathon of Teen Mom 2 to catch up on.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@bmarvel Amen. There is more psychiatry in Dostoevsky than there is in psychiatry.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@JimSX @carpe-clue She's not just a different race. She's a different species.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@JimSX @Metroplexual Back in Denver when I was three or four years old, my grandmother held me above the fence so I could watch the couple across the alley wage a drunken fight that included dish-throwing and shouting in Russian. Then she put me down and gravely shook her finger in my face.

"We're Polish," she said."We don't do that."

Chattering_Monkey
Chattering_Monkey

@JustSaying @bmarvel He has no idea what teen mom 2 is, or Kenny Powers for that matter.  


LEt me save you the repsonse Bill, he will tell us that what is wrong with us today is that young people dont read enough literature or journalism and thats why we are what we are

noblefurrtexas
noblefurrtexas topcommenter

@JimSX @bmarvel Yup.  Ole Fyodor sure knew how to turn a phrase, over and over.  What was amazing was getting glimpses of his own thinking, and his ability to project the traits of others into what might be their thinking.  I read C&P twice before I got it, and I'm not sure I got it all. But, I made an "A" on the book report, and moved on to "Catcher In The Rye", a volume somewhat as complex, but with fewer sorrows.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@JimSX @bmarvel And I suspect there's often more jounalism in literature than there is in journalism.

fred.garvin.mp.713
fred.garvin.mp.713

I once watched 'Teen Mom #16.' Kind of felt lost not having seen #1-15, but I managed to piece it together.

Now Trending

Dallas Concert Tickets

Around The Web

From the Vault

 

General

Loading...