Will American Inner Cities Dismantle Suburban Boundaries?

Article excerpt

What happens is that the demands upon city and upon suburb become quite impossible to meet as separate undertakings. The disunited metropolis cannot pool its resources, share expenses, streamline operations or coordinate its resources, share expenses, streamline operations or coordinate its facilities and land use for the greatest common good.(1)

Quite easily, they could have come from a press conference with the current Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros. Cisneros, among others, has been promoting the idea that America's cities and suburbs ought to be sharing far more functions, if not the same boundary lines. In 1993 he edited a volume of readings, Interwoven Destinies: Cities and the Nation.(2) Based on conference proceedings earlier that year, the participants drafted a statement calling upon the federal government to aggressively redistribute wealth from suburbs to cities.(3) The statement read in part: "Fragmentation of local governments within metropolitan areas is a major problem. State and local governments should be encouraged to establish metropolitan tax-sharing arrangements, jurisdictional reforms, and state equalization funding."(4)

The participants stopped short of recommending what has been a decades-long dream of many political reformers: the merging of the city and its respective surrounding suburbs into a single political entity. Decades ago political scientist Charles Merriam called for carving city-states out of the nation's metropolitan areas.(5) These new governments would have the same sovereign powers as states themselves. Then, much as now, the perceived problem was that suburban residents and businesses, by living and operating in separately incorporated governments, were draining wealth from cities, rendering the latter fiscally incapable of dealing with worsening problems. In the Nineties, veteran urban affairs journalist Neal Peirce has called upon metropolitan regions to think of themselves as "citistates." A citistate would be a new approach to policy, a new paradigm, if one will, rather than a formal set of geographic boundaries. All future thinking about cities and suburbs should reflect this paradigm.(6)

A recurring theme in this regionalist view is that suburban residents and commuters cannot, nor must be allowed to, escape their metropolitan destiny. No suburb can "wall" itself off from the central city. Suburbs are woven into a metropolitan web, and any attempt to escape it would be foolhardy or worse. Peirce, for example, argues: "Suburban politicians and voters who believe they can long prosper while their central city decays are whistling Dixie."(7) The grim alternative to citistate thinking, he believes, is for elites in the metropolis to continue "to secure themselves behind their guarded gates, and somehow hope--like the symphony playing on in Sarajevo--that the violent forces of a disintegrating society will not touch them. It is not a sane course."(8)

The idea of urban problems inevitably comng home to roost on suburban lawns gained sizable favor with the introduction of the race factor. Major riots in U.S. cities during 1964-68 provided the pretext. The predominantly white suburbs, egalitarian observers argued, indirectly had caused the riots through their exclusionary policies. A suburban "noose" hung around the neck of the central city, but it belonged not to the lynch mob, but to the zoning ordinance, the property tax and the Interstate Highway system. White racism had not disappeared, it merely had become "institutional." Federal, state and city officials, along with business leaders, found themselves under enormous pressure from civil-rights activists to deliver the goods in order to prevent more "long, hot summers." That meant in large measure "telling like it is" to the suburbs.

The report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, dubbed the Kerner Commission Report after its chairman, then-Illinois governor Otto Kerner, was a moral compass for a new type of urban reformer. …