From jobs to schools to demographic transitions, Ferguson and its neighbouring towns, where many protesters live, have undergone sweeping changes in recent years. Some places have become pockets of poverty, comparable to the poorest spots in St Louis, once a hub for corporations such as Anheuser-Busch and Ralston-Purina, which drew generations of immigrant labourers.
Some towns, like Ferguson, are economically mixed, with middle-class subdivisions alongside run-down streets and big apartment complexes like the one where Brown lived. Either way, Swanstrom said, the area highlighted the growing challenge of the “suburbanisation” of poverty.
"This was a catalyst for something much deeper, the lack of economic opportunities and representation people have," said Etefia Umana, an educator and board member of a group called Better Family Life. "A lot of the issues are boiling up."
It’s been boiling for decades. St Louis’ jumble of suburbs - 91 municipalities exist in a county of about one million people ringing the city - has long been sharply segregated. Until the late 1940s, restrictive covenants blocked blacks from buying homes in many towns.
Well into the 1970s, tight zoning restrictions and other rules, especially in places near the city’s mostly black north side, kept many areas largely white, said Colin Gordon, a University of Iowa professor who’s studied housing in St Louis.
That began to change by the 1980s, when middle- and working-class white families began leaving the area around Ferguson for newer, roomier housing in more distant suburbs. In their place came a flood of black families from St Louis in search of better housing and schools.
"When black flight out of the city began, this was the logical frontier," Gordon said. "It became what the city had been, a zone of racial transition."
In Ferguson, the change happened fast. In a generation - from 1990 to today - the population changed from three-quarters white to two-thirds black. Even as the area’s demographics shifted, solid blue-collar jobs sustained many of these towns, said Lara Granich, a community organiser.