How to Lure Suburbanites to the City

ANDREW RETNER

August 22, 1992|By ANDREW RATNER

A conversation I overheard in the newsroom a few years agodefined the difference between city and suburban life.

Two colleagues were talking about shopping at the Swedish furniture emporium, IKEA, just beyond the Beltway in White Marsh. ''You would travel way out there?'' marveled one of them, undoubtedly a city resident. I was taken aback by that reply, because I commuted twice as far to get home each evening.

As shown by demographics and rising political clout, more people than ever are willing to commute past the IKEAs of the world to find a home. The share of the population living in suburbia has doubled over the past 40 years, to nearly 50 percent. Millions of people view a commute of 30 miles, or more, as a reasonable price to pay for good affordable housing, good schools and, increasingly, shopping, jobs and entertainment.

Many columnists and other self-styled urban protectors persist in viewing this choice as an ''abandonment'' of the cities. They don't see the growth of the suburbs as consumer choice, but as a selfish retreat, an abdication of social responsibility, a racist act.

It would be naive to state that racism played no role in the post-war shift from the cities. But the boom in the suburbs over the past 20 years has been driven more by market choice than narrow prejudices. Blaming the suburbs for the downfall of the cities is like criticizing the Japanese for stealing American market share by building a better car.

The suburbs have been a lifestyle choice for centuries before Levitt & Sons spread corn rows of tract housing in Long Island in the 1940s. Harvard professor John R. Stilgoe notes in his book, ''Bordertown,'' that the suburbs were mentioned by Chaucer and Shakespeare. ''Where dwelle ye, if it to telle be?'' asked a pilgrim in the Canterbury Tales. ''In the suburbes of a toun,'' came the reply.

Professor Stilgoe also notes that sophisticates sniffed at the suburban lifestyle long before drugs and crime sickened American cities.

To choose a home in the suburbs, however, is not to abandon the city. No matter how self-contained they've become, the suburbs can't prosper without a healthy Baltimore. Reassemble the Owings Millses, the Odentons, the Bel Airs, the Columbias 100 miles to the west and they'd shrivel. Because urban decay's effect on suburbia is long-term -- a Suburban Immune Deficiency -- government doesn't react. There is no regional body with clout, no regional tax policy and no one to look out for the region.

Political short-sightedness, not consumer choice, is the culprit for the disparity between city and suburb. (Actually, Baltimore County is getting more like the city than it realizes: If the definition of suburb evokes a portrait of mother, father, two kids and a dog, that's a diminishing picture in the county, which, with Baltimore City, are the only jurisdictions in the metro area below the national average for percentage of married couples with children younger than 18.)

State tax policies over the years have kept the suburban school districts well fed and the city schools malnourished. Massive federal highway aid, while well intentioned, has furthered suburban sprawl.

The disparity is also the result of city stereotypes as shallow as those about the suburbs. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley ought to be embarrassed for sending a newspaper clipping about the murder of a downtown hot-dog vendor to federal officials to dissuade them from moving the Health Care Financing Administration headquarters from suburban Woodlawn to Baltimore. Did a grisly murder in a Westview motel a few years back constitute that area of Baltimore County as a crime haven?

The proposed city site for the HCFA relocation was next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Many of those same federal workers who cited crime and traffic in fighting the move of their agency wouldn't hesitate to attend a night game at the new stadium.

Within that irony may reside a solution to the city's problems. The city and state must approach housing and education in Baltimore with the infrastructure and imagination they devoted to revitalizing the tourist area. Suburbanites disregard fears of crime, traffic and parking headaches to visit Baltimore's attractions, because their own areas can't hold a cultural candle to the city.

Suburbanites day-tripping to metropolis might seem a selfish contradiction to some, but it's no more a discordant than loving America while buying a foreign-made appliance or automobile because you admire the product's value. Until the city can compete in the marketplace for the middle class, its condition won't improve.

Andrew Ratner writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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