As it runs along the eastern edge of the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., Florissant Avenue resembles hundreds and perhaps thousands of commercial strips around the country. Five lanes wide, it is lined with fast-food restaurants, banks, pawnshops and storage facilities.
This is precisely the territory that architect Robert Venturi was defending in 1966, when he asked near the end of his book “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” “Is not Main Street almost all right? Indeed, is not the commercial strip of a Route 66 almost all right?”
Not this week, that’s for sure.
It wasn’t media reports or urgent tweets from Canfield Drive, the nearby street where the unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot by a police officer while walking to his grandmother’s apartment, that finally gave the Ferguson story wide traction.
Instead it was pictures of the action on the strip, where local police, after a night of looting on Saturday, unleashed an oversized show of force, driving tanks and armored vehicles past the McDonald’s and the check-cashing outlets, pointing automatic weapons at protestors and ultimately sending tear-gas canisters not just down the middle of Florissant but into nearby frontyards.
Those photographs, which began to circulate midweek on social media and then on television and newspaper websites, made it look as if an invading army were marching directly on American suburbia.
And as much as race is at the forefront of the story in Ferguson — where the population, nearly 70% African American, is protected by a police department that is 94% white — it wasn’t race per se that made the country pay attention.
It was the sight of a militarized police force moving across this familiar commercial landscape. It was photograph after photograph showing Main Street looking anything but all right.
Of course, race is part of that story too. In the last decade the suburbs just northwest of St. Louis have seen their black populations grow significantly. If the makeup of the county police force has changed at all, it has done so far more slowly.
In a larger sense, economic and demographic shifts have continued to blur the distinction between city and suburb, and in fact threatened to make that distinction useless on a national scale in much the same way it’s been useless in Los Angeles for many decades.
Much about the Ferguson case remains unknown or in dispute, including the question of precisely how and when the confrontation turned violent. Ferguson police officials announced Friday that Brown was a suspect in a robbery on Saturday morning. They also said the officer who shot Brown was unaware of that fact.
In “Complexity and Contradiction,” Venturi was eager to take on a certain rigid brand of American good taste while also fighting various internecine professional battles. The questions he posed about Main Street and the commercial strip, in fact, were directed largely at the architect and critic Peter Blake, who had written his own book on this section of the American landscape two years before.
In “God’s Own Junkyard,” Blake complained that the aesthetic order and calm central to, say, Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia were almost impossible to find in postwar American architecture, especially its commercial variety.
Venturi found Blake’s disdain amusing, ironic and revealing all at once. “The pictures in [his] book that are supposed to be bad are often good,” Venturi wrote. “The seemingly chaotic juxtapositions of honky-tonk elements express an intriguing kind of vitality and validity.”
Over time the “seemingly chaotic” elements of the commercial strip have faded into a kind of numbingly homogenous landscape of chain restaurants and drive-through Starbucks.
Today we don’t look at images of a street like Florissant Avenue and see anything jarring, the way Venturi and Blake did. Unless of course it’s filled with riot police and plumes of tear gas.
So maybe it’s time to ask some modified version of Venturi’s questions, while realizing that the implications are far different — and the stakes arguably higher, at least in political terms — this time around.
If the protests and the police overreaction had happened only on Canfield Drive, away from the recognizable corporate signage on Florissant, would we still be talking about this story?
And what about the police response? Was there something about the architectural character of Florissant that led officers to defend it with such a dramatic and ultimately absurd show of force?
Does a largely white police force see protestors in the middle of a strip like that, only recently abandoned by white residents, and feel as though its own turf — or its own culture — is threatened?
Venturi praised “the commercial strip of a Route 66" as a way of reassuring his readers that there was architectural and cultural opportunity — even progress — visible in the same postwar built landscape where Blake and others saw aesthetic and perhaps moral decline. Venturi also glimpsed in that roadside architecture a fundamentally democratic kind of energy.
There is always in the American character a countervailing desire to turn that chaos into order, to iron out the wrinkles, to squash the moments of visual, cultural or political unpredictability. Just look at the recent efforts to paint Frank Gehry’s proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial as disrespectful or, in its mildly unkempt aesthetic, somehow un-American.
There is a law-and-order camp in architecture as well as in politics.
Ferguson, refreshingly, saw a very different kind of police presence on Thursday, when the Missouri Highway Patrol took over and gave protestors plenty of room to operate. That newly humane approach seemed to directly echo sentiments from August Heckscher, a writer and cultural advisor to the Kennedy White House whom Venturi quotes at length in “Complexity and Contradiction.”
Heckscher, in his 1962 book “The Public Happiness,” wrote about the dangers of any effort to impose civic order by force alone, as the police tried to do in Ferguson.
“Rationalism proves inadequate in any period of upheaval,” he wrote. “Equilibrium must be created out of opposites. Such inner peace as men gain” — and as cities gain, he might have added — “must represent a tension among contradictions and uncertainties.”
Later, as New York City parks commissioner from 1967 to 1972 under Mayor John Lindsay, Heckscher was instrumental in issuing permits to allow huge antiwar rallies in Central Park.
The path from Venturi to the St. Louis suburbs, then, is shorter and straighter than you might guess, and the common ground between the two involves more than just imagery of the commercial strip.
It also involves our ever-shifting levels of tolerance for dissent in urban space, suburban space and privately owned public space. It involves Occupy Wall Street. And the Florida subdivision where George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin.
And a long blog post this week on Ferguson, “A Brief History of Black Folks and Sidewalks,” by writer Stacia L. Brown. Her essay focuses more on Canfield Drive than on Florissant Avenue; it has a good deal to say about how the historical tensions between police and African Americans have played out in public space.
The questions Venturi asked in 1966 were hopeful and intentionally naive, in keeping with the tone of the book, which he labeled a “gentle manifesto.”
The questions we ask about Ferguson in the days and weeks ahead should be more pointed. They are prompted, after all, by police officers who acted as if the same commercial strip Venturi was moved to defend, in admiration for the messy vitality and freedom of American culture, was theirs to throttle and control.