From the 'Burbs to the 'Hood : ACTIVISTS ARE FINDING SUCCESS SOLVING SOCIAL PROBLEMS ON A REGIONAL BASIS

Article excerpt

This is the latest installment in our "What Works" series, which explores effective strategies for improving people's lives through progressive social change.

--The Editors

"There's no such thing as the suburbs anymore," says Minnesota State Representative Myron Orfield as he drives me past run-down apartment complexes and near-empty strip malls in the blue-collar communities north of Minneapolis. "They're all so different now." Except for the squat 1950s and 1960s architecture, this area looks like the inner city: check-cashing outlets, day-labor agencies, wig shops, pool halls, a social-service agency housed in an old 7-11 convenience store. In the suburb of Hilltop, the city hall sits in the middle of a trailer park. Orfield notes that schools in Brooklyn Center are 50 percent minority (in a region that is only 9 percent) and that 55 percent of students are eligible for free-lunch programs--suggesting a concentration of poverty approaching that of hard-hit neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

A few months later Orfield takes me on another tour, this time through the southwestern Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, where we travel down newly reconstructed highways surrounded on all sides by mounds of black dirt. As rolling farmland is dug up for a new Blockbuster video store, a new Outback Steakhouse, new glitzy office parks for firms with quintessentially Year 2000 names like Veratech and PageNet, and new subdivisions of half-million-dollar homes, the air is full of the smell of fresh asphalt and the sound of pile drivers. "I get sad out here," he says. "The landscape is being destroyed and money is being sucked out of the city."

Orfield, 39, who grew up in Minneapolis and now represents it in the state legislature, has launched an ambitious political initiative to slow suburban sprawl and the accompanying flow of wealth from older neighborhoods into booming new communities on the fringes of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. He sees central cities and blue-collar suburbs as allies in an emerging political coalition to revitalize low- and middle-income communities--not just in Minneapolis-St. Paul but across the country. Working with a growing national movement of social-justice activists, environmentalists and municipal officials--both urban and suburban--Orfield promotes the idea that problems like poverty, affordable housing and inner-city decline are best solved on a regional basis. Struggling Brooklyn Center and ritzy Eden Prairie, along with the public housing projects and gentrified neighborhoods of Orfield's Minneapolis legislative district, are all part of the same metropolitan community. And their fates are inextricably linked.

All metropolitan regions function as unified economic units, Orfield explains, and many of the advantages enjoyed by new, upscale suburbs come at the expense of inner-city neighborhoods and older suburbs. Communities on the outer rings of a metropolitan area that are flourishing--with new houses, new businesses and new jobs--can offer lower taxes, better public services and shelter from crime and other social problems while providing no affordable housing for the low-wage workers who make this economic growth possible. This draws businesses and middle-class families away from cities and inner-ring suburbs, setting off a spiral of disinvestment and decline. The tax base shrinks in these older communities at the same time that an increasingly poor population needs more public services. This is the familiar story of urban decline that has ravaged cities across America since World War II. But Orfield has identified two new dimensions of the problem.

First, many suburbs are now joining cities as the big losers in this game. From New Rochelle (once famous as Rob and Laura Petrie's suburban New York home on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but now heavily poor and Latino) to Compton (the Los Angeles suburb immortalized by gangsta rap pioneers NWA in their album Straight Outta Compton), it's clear that urban decline no longer occurs only within the boundaries of central cities. …