On Borrowed Time
Urban decline moves to the suburbs
Mar 1, 2008
22 Min read time
A few months ago, about 125 leaders from religious institutions, civic organizations, and social service groups met at Etz Chaim synagogue in the town of Lombard, in DuPage County, to wrestle with a new reality: a budget crisis. Budget crises aren not supposed to happen in places like west suburban DuPage. It is home to nearly one million souls and more than 600,000 private sector jobs. It boasts a median income of $70,000, one of the highest in the nation. And yet the county, strapped for cash, was threatening to cut convalescent services, veterans’ services, housing assistance, breast cancer screening, and many other essential public functions.
Until recently DuPage County had been one of the big winners during the forty-year decline and imminent collapse of Cook County. Major corporations fled Chicago’s failing downtown and moved to DuPage’s open spaces and tax-friendly towns. Working class homeowners on the west and southwest sides of the city sold their bungalows and bought ranch houses, Cape Cods, and new town homes in Wheaton and Naperville and Downers Grove. Families troubled by the city’s public schools happily sent their children into shining new facilities and well-equipped classrooms. County government prided itself on its lean budgets and effective service-delivery.
By the date of the meeting, however, the developers who had helped double DuPage’s population in just 30 years had run out of land. The income generated by their construction efforts had dwindled to a trickle. Education and public safety costs continued to climb. Scores of specialized local districts and commissions—water, sanitary, and others —absorbed hundreds of millions of dollars that never made it into the general operating budget of the county and were subject to little, if any, scrutiny or oversight. And residential real estate taxes—the backbone of the county’s budget due to the long-standing agreement to attract and retain business by keeping commercial taxes low—soared.
The leaders facing the crisis were themselves a new reality—more diverse than anyone would have imagined just ten years ago. In the modern synagogue meeting space, sitting around tables of ten, were approximately fifteen Muslim leaders from mosques and community centers, five Hispanics who were part of an exploding population drawn to the country by plentiful employment, and several African immigrants and African Americans. About one out of four participants were not white—a ratio that represents the make-up of the new DuPage. They were brought together by the leaders and staff of the local Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) affiliate called DuPage United.
The organizer of the group, Amy Lawless, asked me—a veteran organizer with IAF working in both the Chicago and New York metropolitan areas—to give a 30-minute talk about the state of the county. I started off where I often do, by thinking back to the west side of Chicago, to the corner of Ferdinand and Springfield near Garfield Park, where my family lived. There was no way to know, in the 1950s, that we were living at the city’s high point. The massive economic and political, civic and religious institutions had seemed as solid and stable as glaciers to those living with them or in their shadows. From the second floor of our double-brick corner house, we could see the tavern that we once owned, the then-modern building that housed Newark Electronics, where my father and I would someday work, and the row of houses that blocked a view of Tootsietoy Company, where my mother would be employed. Four blocks north was our parish, Our Lady of the Angels. Many thousands attended Mass each Sunday. Sixteen hundred children packed its classrooms.
By the mid-1980s, it was all rapidly declining. Today, our home, along with thousands of others, is abandoned. A state social service center fills the old electronics plant. Tootsietoy’s products are mostly made in China. And the parish church and school have closed.
In that pleasant synagogue meeting space, with the last of the new McMansions going up across the street, with 60,000 more workers commuting in to DuPage each day than commuting out, with the local football teams on the rise and the SAT and ACT scores still high, I suggested that perhaps the county had hit its own high-water mark and that without clear-eyed re-evaluation, it was poised, as Chicago had been in the mid-1950s, for decline.
DuPage is not alone, of course. In Nassau and Suffolk Counties in New York, in Montgomery and Baltimore Counties in Maryland, in Bergen and Essex and Middlesex Counties in New Jersey, in almost every mature suburb in the northeast and Midwest and mid south, families face these same conditions. A Roman Catholic pastor I met in Nassau County described it as suburbia's midlife crisis. It may be part of America's midlife crisis as well.
No longer young, no longer trendy, no longer the place to be, no longer without apparent limitations or constraints, these places, like people, have developed ways of avoiding reality.
Denial (supported by ever-stronger doses of public relations). One way is just to deny that there are new realities, or that these new realities will ever affect them. Hundreds of older cities and suburbs, large and small, do this. Denial keeps the real estate crowd happy—selling the safety and schools and jobs of the suburbs, while ignoring the property taxes and rising school and public safety costs, hoping that the younger and fresher and business-hungry counties further west, or the factories of China and tech campuses of India, don’t tempt too many companies to leave.
Gimmicks. A municipality buys a soccer team, or minor league baseball franchise, or jai alai fronton, or casino, or all of the above. Bigger municipalities start selling or leasing large parts of themselves. Just two years ago, Chicago leased the Skyway in an attempt to generate revenue and plug holes in an election-year budget. In late 2007, the papers were filled with stories about another $250 million gap. What’s the next one-shot? Naming rights are being discussed. And, of course, there is always the summer Olympics of 2016. In a desolate corner of the near-south side, amid boarded up gray stones and eerily empty boulevards during what should be the morning rush hour, a beleaguered local pastor told me that the possibility of an Olympic swimming venue (proposed by the city, for eight years in the future, as part of an Olympic bid with little or no chance of succeeding) would help revive the neighborhood.
Blaming “others.” In cities of the 1950s, the “others” were the black workers who had arrived by the hundreds of thousands for jobs that were just beginning to disappear. They needed housing and schools for their children. And the Democratic machine was more than happy to enrich itself by taking money from the developers and real estate hustlers who were running white ethnics out of their neighborhoods and steering minorities in. The political establishment blamed the blacks for the neighborhoods’ decline. This extraordinary trope made it possible for a major American city to demolish much of its public housing stock—nearly 18,000 units—and essentially not replace it. Ten years ago, these 18,000 families were promised replacement apartments. To date, fewer than 2,000 have been built, most not affordable to the original renters. When I described this situation to two young and prosperous Chicago businessmen, they expressed no surprise. Blacks were the problem, weren’t they? And they had to hand it to Mayor Daley for figuring out how to evict them without greater opposition. Today, in the suburbs, the new “others” are immigrants—Hispanic and Muslim. Some blame them for the current fiscal crisis. Meanwhile, the structural, financial, and political challenges of the suburbs—built into their creation and preceding the newest wave of immigrants by three decades—are not dealt with.
Withdrawal: Increasing fragmentation and privatization. As the budget crises persist, as the gimmicks become more transparent and inadequate, as the racial and ethnic rhetoric rises, those with resources begin to protect their own interests. Walls of all kinds are built. Private colleges and hospitals will become fiefdoms —supplying their own security, sanitation, even housing at times. Private schools for those who can afford them multiply. Gated communities have become the norm. Most suburbs had little public housing or public transportation to begin with. But the logic for anything “public” will be challenged as revenue to support any shared public activity shrinks. The forces for and against public effort, public institutions, and public life will soon collide in the public schools and public safety agencies of the suburbs.
We have moved a long way from the vision of the nation that Abraham Lincoln described in his Message to Congress, on July 4, 1861, “To elevate the condition of man . . . To lift artificial weights from all shoulders; To clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; To afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life . . .” “All” is what FDR had in mind when he formulated the New Deal. It is not a word you hear in the public arena—city, county, state, or nation—these days.
Instead, in the Land of Lincoln, older cities like Chicago and counties like Cook have already shown how to focus on the few. Their economic strategies have benefited those who own the businesses that cater to the tourist trade, not the workers who make the beds and chop the onions. They have created enclaves around universities and hospitals where parents can buy condos for their student-children and where private security forces patrol the streets. They have sequestered revenues generated by business and medical clusters within those districts, thus starving the larger public housing, health, transit, and educational systems in the sprawling ghettos just outside the gates. They have encouraged construction of homes and apartment towers that few local residents can afford, which are bought as investment by European and South American elites. And they have kept control of the courts, jails, and police forces —patronage for the operatives who guarantee machine incumbency, the industry of incarceration weakly buffering the loss of the steel and auto and other manufacturing industries of the past.
Many of the paths of laudable pursuit have been closed or semi-privatized—walled, gated, guarded—for some time. For three generations of African Americans, the city and county have been places of a deep and extended depression. For the white-ethnic working class, the results have been more mixed. Hundreds of thousands of families, like mine, lost equity repeatedly as each neighborhood on the west and south sides was re-segregated. Fearful whites sold low. Blacks desperate to flee tenements bought high. The real estate hustlers, with the blessing of the Democratic machine, made fortunes and kicked a percentage back to the local ward alderman or committeeman. Other whites accepted the instability of repeated neighborhood change for the stability of patronage employment. The city government that put food on the table took money from their savings accounts at Pioneer Bank and Talman Savings and Loan in the form of lost home equity. For more recent immigrants, the city has been stripped of opportunity in some places and sealed off in others.
The Democratic machine and its allies have fought an increasingly costly rear-guard action for nearly half a century. At the end of that period, the image of the city has been burnished, but Chicago is basically broke. Housing abandonment, homelessness, and foreclosure rates are all at historic highs. 34 public school children were murdered during the 2006-7 school year alone. The police force staggers under multiple charges of abuse and corruption. The old bungalow bedrock of the city—blue-collar and tax-paying—has disappeared.
It is instructive to compare Chicago with New York, which seemed in even worse shape 30 years ago. Most Americans remember the famous tabloid headline: "Ford to New York: Drop Dead." As late as the mid-1980s, a major magazine sported a picture of a darkened city on its cover with the letters, "NYC RIP." Indeed, beginning in the late 1970s, the city was locked in a very public life-and-death struggle. Only emergency action by labor unions and others saved the city fiscally. But, when faced with municipal mortality—perhaps because it had to face its own mortality—a strange thing happened. The city slowly began to revive.
This revival didn’t start in City Hall or in some political gathering. It wasn’t engineered by a major builder like the legendary Robert Moses. And it wasn’t the brainchild of a great corporate or financial titan. This building began locally, in some of the most forgotten corners of a city that was battling the equivalent of a virulent and advanced form of cancer. It started in East Brooklyn and the South Bronx and the Manhattan area called Washington Heights.
In the late 1970s, a little known group called the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) began rehabilitating apartment buildings in one of the areas that Hollywood loved—drug-ridden Washington Heights. After 14,000 units were built in a decade, most of the rental housing in the area had been returned to useful life. In 1980, one of our organizations, East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), began its work in an area a touring mayor from Boston dubbed, “The beginning of the end of civilization.” EBC built 3,000 new, affordable, owner-occupied homes on the vacant acres there, and is constructing 1,500 more as we speak. In the South Bronx, another IAF group, South Bronx Churches, built one thousand homes starting in 1986, while other efforts led by Father Lou Gigante and Mary Daily built or renovated thousands more. Common Ground created 2,000 units of housing for formerly homeless people, giving them shelter, services, and an alternative to the streets. 2,000 more are now in development. Over a 25-year period, more than 200,000 units of housing have either been upgraded or built from scratch. A million New Yorkers have returned to the city, pushing its population back over 8.25 million. The city spent $500 million a year in some years on housing production. In the process, New York transformed lots filled with rubble and tires into neighborhoods for the hard-working families that lived in public housing, but couldn’t afford even a starter home in a suburb. Those families held on. They saved. They bought. And they benefited from one of the greatest public works efforts in modern times. Private developers vie for the remaining lots in places like Mott Haven or East New York, where they can now build market-rate housing. This, although with its own challenges, was utterly unthinkable in 1980.
During this same period, a similar renewal effort was occurring in public transit. In the 1970s and 1980s, New York City subways were famous for breakdowns, fires, and crime. The number of riders plummeted in what seemed to be a death-spiral. Massive state support solicited by Richard Ravitch and engineered by the late Speaker of the Assembly Stanley Fink and then-Governor Mario Cuomo helped stabilize the system. An epic campaign to block the construction of a West Side highway led by Marcy Benstock saved billions for mass transit. Relentless advocacy by Gene Russianoff and the Straphangers Campaign kept the problems and potential of the transit system on the radar screens of the press and politicians. Able management by Robert Kiley meant that the funds raised and saved were put to good use. A workforce of 40,000 transit employees, most city dwellers, kept the trains and buses running. Today, breakdowns are rare and crime is remarkably low. Predictably, riders jam the trains and buses at all hours of the day and night. New York is now expanding the subway system by adding spurs and new lines.
Finally, the police department has benefited from the leadership of three mayors over a twenty-year period. David Dinkins secured the funds to hire additional cops. Rudy Giuliani made public safety the hallmark of his administration and hired Bill Bratton to revolutionize police work in the city. And Michael Bloomberg both institutionalized and improved on Giuliani’s work, making New York one of the safest big cites and a challenge for the Hollywood crowd looking for edgy street scenes. This year, the number of homicides may dip to 500—down from 2,250 little more than a decade ago.
These three major improvements are so large in scale that they are hard to see, absorb, or interpret. Each improvement had a different trajectory and a different character, but they shared some characteristics.
Each was extremely costly, requiring sustained financial support for fifteen years or more. But each long-term investment, once it hit critical mass, also generated extraordinary value. The value of real estate has soared in the toughest and most distant corners of each borough. An NYU study has shown the existing homes near IAF’s Nehemiah sites benefited greatly from our construction.
Each improvement took time to build, reach critical mass, and generate a chain reaction in the right direction. The turnaround in public safety has occurred over a fifteen-year period. The renewal of the transit system started nearly 25 years ago. And the revival of the housing stock is in its 30th year, if you count, as we do, the work of CPC in Washington Heights as the starting point.
Each improvement was led by a mix of leaders. The overwhelming majority came from the civic or voluntary sector and from the government sector (both elected officials, but as, or more, importantly, able administrators in the housing, transit, and public safety fields). The private sector could point to an occasional participant, but, by and large, it lagged the other two sectors by a large margin.
And each improvement was contentious. Those leaders involved in each of these three efforts were by no means in sync, cooperative, or even civil to one another. On the contrary, each effort was accompanied by disputes, rivalries, jealousies, and open warfare at times. There was no centralized “meeting of all the stakeholders” in some lavish foundation conference room or elegant university hall.
What to make of this? Even today, the conventional wisdom is that New York is out of control, dangerous, dirty; a nice place to play, but a terrible place to live. And Chicago is tidy, orderly, safe, and a great destination for tourists, business people, and university students. As someone who has lived in and around both cities for nearly 30 years each, I know how hard it is to be objective about them. And stereotypes, once set, often trump reality. Besides, Chicago is the private preserve of the Daley clan, and the current Daley projects all that’s positive about the city and takes any criticism of it personally. Chicago has a face and a lake front focus. New York is no one’s personal preserve, not the current mayor’s (who is a billionaire), not the previous mayor’s (who was a presidential candidate), not the next mayor’s. New Yorkers relish their edginess and untidiness, even exaggerate it at times. New York has a blur of faces and multiple points of interest.
One conclusion to draw is that it is better in the long run—as an individual or as a municipality—to face reality. Sometimes, a crisis, like New York’s flirtation with bankruptcy, can help trigger that confrontation. The reality in New York 30 years ago was that both the market and the government had failed miserably—the market unwilling to invest in devastated areas or support a dying city, the government wasting hundreds of millions on do-nothing programs run by local groups connected to hapless pols.
When I described the situation in DuPage County and other areas to a well-respected Republican advisor, he responded in the predictable way: “How about cutting business taxes? Wouldn’t that attract commerce and people?” But business taxes have always been low in Republican-led DuPage County and are decreasing as a percentage of overall revenue. Even with low taxes, even with 600,000 private sector jobs, even with 60,000 more workers traveling to the county for work than commuting from it, the county finds itself in structural fiscal distress.
Besides, when reality is finally and fully faced, it is not all bad. While a whole generation of institutions has declined, a new generation has begun to emerge. In DuPage, the Muslim and Hispanic communities are rising and eager to contribute to the next phase of the county’s life. Evangelical congregations are growing and thriving all across the country, many arriving at their own mid-life moment after 30 years of astonishing growth. The local community college—The College of DuPage—attracts a diverse cohort of 30,000 students to a single sprawling campus. Community colleges, which began decades ago as small and often isolated vocational schools, now educate 45 percent of college students in the United States. Vibrant networks created and led by those recovering from alcohol and substance abuse are major presences in almost every urban neighborhood or suburban development. In Long Island, these recovery communities are navigating their ways into the public arena cautiously and creatively. From the most forlorn corners of Chicago’s west side to the packed streets of East Harlem, social entrepreneurs are establishing hundreds of new public schools and public charter schools. In all of these areas, organizations like DuPage United and East Brooklyn Congregations and Washington Interfaith Network and Greater Boston Interfaith Organization are beginning to imagine, design, and implement solutions to what once seemed to all intractable social problems.
A second conclusion is that many of the current political structures and leaders are either unable or unwilling to deal with these new realities. When you find the exceptions, like a reluctantly persuaded but then fully committed Mayor Ed Koch or a housing commissioner like Felice Michetti, fine. But waiting for most to act or blaming them when they don’t are often not constructive responses. This puts the burden of thinking and acting back on a new type of civic leader: a volunteer with a real following in a local community, but also with a range of analysis and understanding that crosses town or county or city boundaries. The renewal of most of the failed cities of the failed state of Ohio—Dayton, Toledo, Cleveland, Youngstown, Sandusky, Lorain, and many others—depends on men and women who live in and care about those cities. But they will need to relate to leaders well beyond their own towns. And they will need to become a kind of ad hoc economic strategy team for their area, for their state, and for the struggling midwestern region described in Richard Longworth’s fine book, Caught in the Middle.
A third conclusion is that this work will require a new set of allies and partners if it is to succeed. The rebuilding of East Brooklyn depended on the extraordinary leadership and financial support of three religious bodies—the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church of St. Louis. These three institutions disagreed on almost everything doctrinally, but came together to invest millions of no-interest construction financing to help EBC build affordable housing. Other key allies were the late I.D. Robbins and the current general manager of the effort, Ron Waters. These two construction professionals helped facilitate and oversee the extraordinarily difficult and complex rebuilding effort. Another significant ally was the Community Preservation Corporation, which provided invaluable technical assistance and financial support.
Each of these allies was not “local” in the same sense that the East Brooklyn organization was. The local congregational and community leaders had to have the confidence necessary to identify and trust talented people from other spheres. But when they did, they deepened and extended their impact well beyond what anyone could have imagined at the start. A Harvard Business Review piece by John P. Kotter describes the need for leaders to “align” the right participants to improve the odds of making major changes. The current alignment of local and national dynastic leadership, tired liberal programs, stale conservative tax policies, and fragmented municipal entities is all wrong. A new alignment—a new generation of local leaders, visionary supporters like the late Bishop Francis J. Mugavero, top professionals in the fields of finance and new business creation, academic talent that’s not too cautious or not on the establishment’s payroll—is needed. Better yet, a number of new alignments.
A fourth conclusion is that new kinds of money, from new sources, used in creative ways, will be required if cities, counties and regions are to revive. A relatively modest fund of $8 million, raised from religious sources by East Brooklyn Congregations in 1982, fundamentally changed the way its proposal to build affordable, single-family homes was received. The group of pastors and lay people from a part of the city that had been designated by the elites for “planned shrinkage” had somehow amassed a sum of money that impressed the mayor, his commissioners, newspaper editors, and developers. That revolving construction fund has generated housing with a current market value approaching one billion dollars. New pools of money—in the hundreds of millions in smaller cities and billions in larger cities and metropolitan regions—will need to be created by these organizations and their allies. Local governments will need to reject the low-tax or anti-tax theology of the post-Reagan era. Higher taxes in support of carefully targeted social and economic strategies will be key to the rebuilding of older American cities and maturing suburbs. During the most productive years of its housing revival, New York City spent more than the next fifty American cities combined on housing creation and rehabilitation. It shows. The return on this investment is incalculable.
A fifth conclusion is that there may be a need for less government and more planning. Today, there is as much, or more, local, county, and state legislative activity as ever despite decreasing revenues for fewer and fewer priorities. The virulence of internal disagreements and personal vendettas will only increase as resources disappear. Political disputes will resemble academic battles: more intense because they concern so little. For citizens to continue to spend time and energy in this dynamic is deadly, a slow form of political suicide.
I ended my remarks on a lovely late-October night with a challenge: citizens in suburbs like DuPage—historically Republican, politically moderate, located between the vast fields and farms that produced the midwest’s first phase of prosperity and the once-robust manufacturing center of Chicago that forged the region’s second period of wealth—need to align themselves with new leaders from other sectors and cut and clear new paths for peoples’ laudable pursuits in the decades ahead. The very act of doing so, of opening these paths, engaging all, figuring out how to offer all people an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life, would reinvigorate people and places and position them for the next rich phase of our local and national experience.
March 01, 2008
22 Min read time