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The Sleepy Road Near Our National Conversation On Race

Linda Owen takes a photo of her husband, Al, in front of Ferguson Brewing Co. near the city's historic district. The couple are from an unincorporated section of St. Louis County and were visiting Ferguson. They don't get down to West Florissant much anymore, although Linda, a retired teacher, has former students who live there and said she worries about how they're doing. (Eric Kayne for NPR)

On television, it's hard to get a sense of just how small the stretch of West Florissant Avenue — the thoroughfare in Ferguson, Mo., that's drawn international attention after the killing of Michael Brown — really is.

On either side of West Florissant, there are nail salons and barber shops, liquor stores and Chinese food spots, convenience stores and places where you can buy refurbished electronics or pay your utility bills. Because of the unrest, lots of the stores are boarded up, some as precautions against vandalism and looting, others as a result of it. Some are open — and have graffiti on the wooden boarding to indicate as much — while some are temporarily closed, presumably until things calm down. The QuikTrip, the convenience store that police allege Michael Brown stole from before he was killed, is on West Florissant, too. It's since been burned down.

Since the shooting, protesters have been out marching on this half-mile stretch, but over the past few days, people haven't really started to come out until the afternoon. They loop up and down, holding signs, chanting several different chants, beating drums, singing spirituals, fists in the air. There are lots of police officers and nearly as much media; earlier in the week it seemed that all the white people here had press badges or police badges.

A few miles west is another Florissant: South Florissant Road. (It's counterintuitive, I know.) This sleepier, less electric stretch is considered downtown Ferguson. It's the historic district. There are folks sitting outside a wine bar, there's a brewery and a few sit-down restaurants. There's a sparkling new fire station, with the Ferguson Wall of Fame in front. (Michael McDonald, the blue-eyed soul singer who recently offered his opinion on the events in his hometown, is on the wall.) Across from the fire station, construction proceeds on a new police headquarters.

I don't want to hammer too hard on the juxtaposition — lots of storefronts sit vacant, a sign that it's not the rosiest economic times over here, either. (Eric Kayne, the photographer I'm rolling with, quipped that South Florissant's abandoned storefronts might pull higher rents than the abandoned storefronts on West Florissant.) But the homes near South Florissant are decidedly larger, farther back from the street.

Besides the clutch of about two-dozen or so protesters, black and Latino, across from the not-yet-occupied police station — and the drivers whizzing by honking their horns — it's pretty quiet over here. There's a satellite truck for some news agency here, but no cameras.

A retired teacher named Linda Owen and her husband, Alan, walk down the street. Alan is wearing a T-shirt that says "I [HEART] FERG." I ask where he got the shirt, and Linda says there's a little store down South Florissant that sells them, near the farmers market. "If you go further up there, you'll see lots of little shops, little antique stores," Linda says.

"The racial makeup is different down there," Linda says ("down there" being West Florissant), "and the economics are different, but it doesn't matter to me." Before she retired, she taught a school that pulled from those more-black neighborhoods. She worries about how her old students are making out through all of this, and starts to tear up. "I want it to be over in a way that everyone can accept. I don't know that that's going to happen."

Other people just want it over, period. My Code Switch teammate Shereen Marisol Meraji talked to a resident from this part of Ferguson who said the hullabaloo down the way was just nuisance.

"I think it's crazy," Katie Mory told Shereen. "I want to take my kids outside and not have to listen to the helicopter swarming above our house. And I just — it all just needs to be done and over with."

The sense of urgency and scope we saw on TV and social media about West Florissant — one widely shared photo depicted someone holding up a sign that reads "Negro Spring" — suggests that Ferguson is now the official locus for our National Conversations on race and what some call the militarization of police.

But it's harder to see any of that here on South Florissant, even as there's evidence of the disinvestment that has buffeted North St. Louis more broadly. The strife between black residents and their police are just one manifestation of Ferguson's deep-seated historical challenges.

And the end to the pitched battles playing out as global news just a few miles away might only resolve a very, very small part of those challenges.

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