FERGUSON, Missouri (CNN) -

The QuikTrip that's now in shambles, its iconic red awning a nest of twisted metal, was once a favorite stop for residents here.

The kids loved the slushies. The adults loved the doughnuts. And residents in the area say that before "the ruckus on West Florissant" -- in which looters and vandals parading as protesters mangled a primary corridor -- they could walk to QuikTrip at any hour with nary a concern for their safety.

It speaks to a city that enjoys the simpler things: a frozen custard at an old train depot, an afternoon casting reels in Wabash Park, pork steak Wednesdays at Marley's Bar & Grill or a night knocking back cold ones at the local brew house.

The Ferguson that residents see on television, they don't recognize that place. The tear gas canisters clanking through the streets, flash-bang grenades, military Humvees and cops in riot gear facing off with angry protesters, many of them out-of-town rabble-rousers here to cause trouble -- yeah, this isn't Ferguson, they say.

Residents near the protest area have gotten the worst of it. Their stores' windows have been replaced with plywood, spray-painted with messages like, "Thank you for your love and support." Protest blockades have trapped them in the neighborhoods at night, leaving them afraid to take walks or let their children play out of sight.

For some, staying inside was no better, as the pungent tear gas used to choke and disperse troublemakers -- and incidentally, peaceful but precariously positioned protesters -- wafted down into their neighborhood. It seeped into their homes, stinging their eyes, skin and throat.

They moved here because of the city's solid schools, decent jobs, affordable housing and manageable crime rate. Now, they're choking in their living rooms.

Three weeks ago -- before Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson -- they insist, Ferguson was an immensely different place.

Seeing their city destroyed

"The people are generally nice, humble. They just want to take care of the homes they have and keep it moving," said Charles Davis, a longtime black businessman in the area who opened his Ferguson Burger Bar on West Florissant the day before Brown was shot.

Opening a burger shop across from a McDonald's on one of Ferguson's main drags may seem questionable, but like many people in the area, he said his fate is in someone else's hands.

"I have a good friend. His name is God. I don't worry about it," said Davis, who has lived in Ferguson three years; his mom has lived here for 20.

In the nights after Brown's shooting -- when most businesses closed either intentionally or as a result of having their windows smashed and wares filched -- he stayed open until 10 or 11 p.m., serving up his "garbage" burgers, complete with bacon and a fried egg, and Muddy Water, a secret-recipe beverage resembling an Arnold Palmer (but don't tell Davis that).

When tear gas canisters bounced into his parking lot, which he shares with a barbershop and beauty supply store, he opened his doors to protesters. Inside the bare-bones eatery with its pithy signs -- "You say I dream too big, I say you think too small" -- refugees watched through hand-painted plate glass as the mayhem unfolded outside.

Ferguson residents aren't used to being fearful. FBI statistics from 2012 show crime is a smidge higher than the national average, but it's low for St. Louis, especially if you venture to the nearby suburbs of Kinloch, Berkeley, Jennings and the misleadingly named Country Club Hills.

In many parts of the city, blacks live next to whites, whites live next to blacks, and everyone seems to get along. At least they did before the town was overrun with strangers and it became unclear who was supporting Michael Brown and who sought to stoke chaos.

"From what I understand and know, Ferguson is A-OK," said Davis, who lives in a diverse neighborhood down the street from his burger joint.

A rift with police

Sure, there are exceptions: the nosy lady down the street always concerned with someone else's business or the shopkeeper who seems to watch his black patrons too closely.

And then there are the guys with badges.

You'll hear stories about them if you travel to some of the predominantly black neighborhoods: the nondescript block units of Nantucket Gardens or the oak-laden Park Ridge Apartments. And, of course, there's the sprawling 400-unit Canfield Green development with its three-story, brick-and-siding dwellings recently refurbished with new wooden handrails and staircases.

There, the police have a reputation for being tough, and while that's good for keeping the drug dealers and gangbangers who plague St. Louis off Ferguson's streets, many innocent black teens and young men are swept up in the effort to keep Ferguson safe, residents said.

Older African-Americans seem less affected, but they have stories about nephews, sons or family friends being roughed up or dressed down in this city of 21,000.

Patricia Pendelton, a nurse who lives a few blocks from the cross-and-candle memorial that marks the spot where Brown took his last step, said she has never had issues with police, but she noted that she's a 41-year-old woman.

As youngsters, their elementary school closed because of the protests, rambled through her front yard and played basketball on a miniature hoop, she explained how her sons -- ages 17, 19 and 21 -- have different experiences. They and other young black men have been stopped for reasons as spurious as looking suspicious, she said.