Urban Policy: Abolish Suburbs

TRB

April 16, 1993|By TRB

Washington. -- The Clinton administration says it's intent on ''inventing government.'' Vice President Al Gore was on television a few days ago babbling about ''this revolutionary new idea'' of making the government ''customer-friendly and customer-driven.''

But if Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore are serious about reinventing government, there is a genuinely revolutionary idea they might try: Abolish the suburbs.

This is a serious suggestion. David Rusk, formerly the mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., makes the case in his new book, ''Cities Without Suburbs.''

Our nation's basic economic unit, Mr. Rusk notes, is the metropolis -- that is, a central city and its surrounding communities.

In 1950, the central cities were healthy, and only about 30 percent of metropolitan residents lived outside them. By 1990, virtually all metropolitan areas had grown, but the growth had been almost entirely suburban.

Many central cities actually lost population, as a vicious cycle set in, with middle-class taxpayers leaving for the quiet life in the suburbs, depriving the city of tax revenue needed to maintain schools and services, which in turn encouraged more middle-class flight. The cities were left with the poor.

That's a familiar story. Mr. Rusk's contribution is to note that it didn't have to be this way. Indeed, it wasn't that way in the few cities that managed to capture much of the suburban growth for themselves.

These ''elastic'' cities (e.g. Houston) either had enough vacant land inside their borders to accommodate expansion or aggressively annexed the surrounding suburbs.

Mr. Rusk produces elaborate charts and tables showing that all sorts of good things happen in ''elastic'' cities. They have stronger growth, faster job creation, more resilient manufacturing sectors, higher bond ratings, less racial segregation, a more highly educated work force, better sex, etc.

OK, not the sex part. But all the other things appear to be true.

When cities incorporate their own suburbs, the cycle of middle-class flight has a hard time starting up. There are few places for the middle class to flee to. Mayors have prosperous constituents to tax, so they have enough money to maintain roads and schools.

Mr. Rusk's most important finding concerns racial segregation. Yes, there are ghettos in ''elastic'' cities such as Houston. But segregation is less severe, because there are fewer independent suburbs that consciously exclude poor blacks.

Sure, even within a single city, individual neighborhoods will resist integration. But those neighborhoods don't have zoning authority. So while ghettos exist, they are easier to escape.

Which is the key point. Mr. Rusk admits that ''America's real urban problem'' is the black and Hispanic underclass. But he dissents from the near-universal consensus that the solution to this problem is to try to rebuild the ghettos, through government aid (liberals), local entrepreneurship (conservatives) or ''enterprise zones'' (everyone). ''It has never worked,'' Mr. Rusk argues. ''Bad communities defeat good programs.''

The right strategy, according to Mr. Rusk, isn't development but dispersion. It's one thing to have a city with 15 percent of the population living in poverty. It's another to have that 15 percent living in one neighborhood, creating the critical mass necessary for an underclass to develop.

If residents of South Central Los Angeles are desperate to escape the ghetto, the government should help them do so. That's easier when the places they might escape to are not separate, paranoid suburbs.

The solution is obvious: Make suburb and city one. The political obstacles, however, are even more obvious.

There are, first, the suburbanites themselves, who may not want pay higher taxes to support their poorer neighbors. Then there's the Black Power Trap. Middle class flight left many

central cities in control of the African-Americans who remained. Consolidation with the suburbs would put blacks back in the minority.

The best thing that District of Columbia Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly could do, if she really cared about the economic well-being of her largely black constituents, would be immediately to dissolve the District of Columbia and merge it into prosperous, white, Montgomery County, Md. But then she wouldn't be mayor anymore.

How might these obstacles be overcome? Mr. Rusk offers a gimmick that might help buy off middle-class suburbanites, giving them extra deductions for local taxes if those taxes go to ''consolidated'' governments. In the 1970s, Rep. Henry Reuss of Milwaukee tried a tougher tactic, attempting to condition federal aid on reform of local governments. The idea died on the House floor.

Abolishing suburbs shouldn't be unthinkable. Brooklyn was once separate city, whose wealthy residents fiercely resisted consolidation with New York City. In 1898, the New York State legislature overruled them, creating a city that, until the rise of new suburbs 50 years later, was the envy of the world.

But today, as David Rusk admits, challenging the suburbs is ''the toughest political task in America.'' Something tells me that President Clinton is not about to take it on.

TRB is a column of The New Republic written by Mickey Kaus.

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