Jeff Roberson / AP

Ferguson: The fate of West Florissant Avenue’s businesses

Shops open after second round of protests, but many are skeptical of when business will bounce back in beleaguered city

FERGUSON, Mo. — On Aug. 8, West Florissant Avenue was just another street, home to gas stations, fast-food restaurants, tire stores and low-rent strip malls. As a suburban commercial district, it was far from glamorous, but small businesses had thrived there for decades.

Everything changed the next day, when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown in the street at the nearby Canfield Green Apartments. West Florissant became ground zero for what followed: protests, looting and police in armored vehicles drenching the street in tear gas.

Three months later, the community had just begun to rebuild when a grand jury announced on Nov. 24 that it wouldn’t charge Wilson with a crime. That decision was met with flames. Just in the one-mile stretch between Ferguson Avenue and Chambers Road, fires damaged or destroyed at least 10 buildings on West Florissant. At that point, police declared the entire stretch a crime scene, blocking access with squad cars and yellow tape, forcing even the untorched businesses to close.

While the police blockade has ended, the street remained in a shambles Tuesday, a blighted mix of boarded and burned.

On a cold, dreary afternoon, John Zisser sat in his office at Zisser Tire and Auto, the family business he has run for 30 years, and surveyed the damage out his window.

“It’s nothing but absolute, total devastation across the street,” he said. “We don’t have a neighborhood anymore.”

Between looting in August and more vandalism in November, Zisser said his business sustained more than $200,000 in damage. He blames Gov. Jay Nixon for promising to protect property, then holding the National Guard back while it burned.

“We got a governor who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the people,” Zisser said. “This is a disaster zone. This is the same thing as a tornado, except we had the possibility of stopping it, and we didn’t. The governor is the cowardly lion. It’s a pitiful situation.”

Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department, said that early in the night, police concentrated their resources in the city’s historic downtown, at the Ferguson Police Department, which officials believed criminals intended to attack. When fires erupted a couple of miles away on West Florissant, police and firefighters attempted to respond but were met with gunfire.

“When fire departments were called in, they were unable to respond due to hundreds of gunshots that were being fired along W. Florissant,” he wrote in an email. “For instance, our crime scene unit recovered 66 shell casings on the parking lot of Red’s BBQ alone.”

Zisser seemed unsure of what his next step would be. “You don’t just move,” he said, then thought a minute. “I don’t know. Maybe I should just cut my losses and sell the place for pennies on the dollar and go someplace else.”

Click here for Al Jazeera's extensive coverage.

Down the street at Solo Insurance, Dan McMullen was happy to talk. He didn’t have any customers calling anyway. Though a window there was broken in August, his boarded-up storefront avoided the fires. His neighbors weren’t so lucky: The building that once held cellphone and beauty supply stores was reduced to a pile of rubble, and he doesn’t think the landlord will rebuild.

“Did we receive any damage? Yeah, because who is going to come here now?” he said. “It’s killing us. Nobody wants to come. It’s all been blown up, burned down, and people are afraid.”

He said his business has died. On a normal day before, about 15 customers would come in. On Tuesday he had two, and just in the past week, he had more than 30 cancellations. He said he might consider moving. He worried that if the federal investigation into Brown’s death also returns no charges, another round of vandalism could ensue.

“It’s hard to move when you don’t have any business,” he said. “It’s hard to move when you’ve been here 20 years and you have a lot of customers and they know that you’re here. But in the same breath, because of all this, if I could move to a more secure location, where it’s not such ground zero … It would be good to move.”

McMullen didn’t fault the police for closing down the street last week, though it meant he had to get a police escort to his office and no customers could come. “Why would I be mad at the police?” he said. “They have a job to do … If they can get these scumbags that did this stuff, let them collect all the evidence they want.”

Schellman said that blocking off the street was important so that police could “conduct thorough investigations into cause and origin and evidence of the arsons.” As of Dec. 1, however, police had arrested just one person for arson related to the riots.

Across the street, Ferguson Burger Bar owners Charles and Kizzie Davis decided not to board their windows, but their storefront was spared, just as it was in August. Charles Davis credited God.

Still, Kizzie Davis, who described herself as a “crybaby,” spent days in fear. She, too, felt betrayed by the governor. When Nixon went to St. Louis on the day of the grand jury announcement, he stopped at the burger joint before his press conference and made assurances.

“The city ended up being on fire hours after he left,” she said. “We had nobody to protect us until everything was already out of hand.” The Davises didn’t close the restaurant that night until after 11 p.m., with fires and gunfire all around them.

The next morning, because the street was closed, the restaurant had to close too, losing several days of business. Worse, the burger bar suffered an electrical outage, and the repair crew wasn’t allowed past the police barrier. All the restaurant’s inventory was lost.

In August, Nixon, along with civic leaders, launched the Small Business Relief Program to give $1 million in interest-free loans to affected businesses. The Reinvest North County Fund has raised more than $300,000 and distributed more than $100,000 in grants since August.

McMullen said insurance covered the damage to his building but not his lost revenue. He applied for a grant and wasn’t accepted. “They didn’t give me nothing,” he said. “Maybe because I’m white. I’m just saying.”

Zisser scoffed at the idea of a loan. “That’s what everybody wants after the governor doesn’t do crap is an interest-free loan to pay back that you sign for personally, so that if your business goes broke, you still owe them the money,” he fumed.

Instead, many businesses have turned to GoFundMe.com for donations. Ferguson Market and Liquor, where Brown allegedly stole cigars shortly before he was killed, was looted in August, and a fire was set there last week. Its GoFundMe site has raised more than $32,000. McMullen has one too, though it has been less successful. Kizzie Davis launched a page for the burger bar the day after Thanksgiving.

Adam Weinstein put his trust not in Nixon but in Smith & Wesson. The owner of County Guns made news in August when he and his heavily armed associates defended his store. He has since moved out of Ferguson (for reasons unrelated to the protests), but his business partner still owns a tattoo parlor on West Florissant, and when the fires started, they returned with their guns.

“Nothing was touched in that strip mall, and it was the only one,” he said. “After the grand jury, we had a couple of waves of vehicles come through — guys in masks and looking all scary and everything, but once again, they take a look at 15 guys with rifles and handguns, and I think they realize that’s something they don’t want to get into.”

Weinstein added that business at the tattoo shop, with its boarded windows, has been down roughly 50 percent.

“It’s just pathetic how you destroy your own neighborhood,” he said. “Ferguson, I don’t care how long you go, it’s never going to be the same. I feel sad for the residents, the ones who truly wanted to make a statement against certain issues, and they were just overshadowed by a group of thugs.”

In spite of everything, Kizzie Davis said her business won’t follow Weinstein out of town. “The community has shown us so much love,” she said. “We would like to at least stay in Ferguson. It’s only right.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter