Monday, April 30, 2007

Patrick's Projection

In the Sunday, April 29th Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, you will find on the op-ed page a lecture on city-suburban relations addressed to city officials and partisans from the paper's in-house conservative commentator Patrick McIlheran.

What I find interesting about the column is that it fixes most of the blame for the complex relationship on one party.

The City of Milwaukee.

Now I know that McIlheran doesn't hate the city.

He lives in the city, and I believe him when he says he wants it to succeed.

But you have to take that column today with a grain of salt. Like a stressed marriage or disintegrating business partnership, where each side usually projects its own shortcomings and thus the blame for the mess on the other, the suburbs get off too easy in McIlheran's review.

(I'm not trying to psychoanalyze the guy. I've only communicated with him once when he edited one of my Sunday Crossroads' op-eds, and he did so with complete professionalism.)

But if he dug deeper into the region's history and tensions, McIlheran would find, beyond the typical, dare I say, 'normal' differences between suburban and urban realities, some matters of substance omitted from today's column, including:

* Racial segregation and housing discrimination which influenced the region's development - - broadly defined - - the vestiges of which continue as potent reality today.

* Disproportionate suburban and exurban planning power centered at the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, where the city doesn't have a single commissioner among the 21-member board, and where city and the minority residents clustered there are virtually unrepresented on the SEWRPC senior staff and SEWRPC advisory committees.

* Continuing freeway expansion that eats up city land and tax base, and steers development away from the city, or gives suburban development, through road-building, an unacknowledged public subsidy.

* And the biggest power play of the last decade that damaged the city's economy - - Waukesha County's veto of a light rail that would have helped improve the city and regional economies, both substantively and symbolically.

I can tie some of those notions above together with this one anecdote.

When I was Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist's chief of staff in the late 1990's, and the light rail controversy was raging, I talked to a suburban community's elected chief official and said, in effect, 'we sure could use your help on light rail, since I know you know it would be good for the city and good for the region, too.'

The suburban officials said to me, and this is a quote:

"I'd love to, but I talked to [x suburban official] and [x suburban official]said what I'm hearing: ' we don't want the [N-word plural] coming in. I wish that wasn't what we're hearing, but that's what'd we'd be up against."

I've omitted the names, and the full spelling of the N-word. You might not want to take my word for it, or don't like the way I'm conveying the story, but it's true.

(Update: I'd add that information published in Monday's Journal Sentinel indicating that Waukesha County has applied to become the first Wisconsin jurisdiction to win federal "special authorization to pursue illegal immigrants" only reinforces the belief in Milwaukee County that people of color and other minorities can and will come in for "special" treatment in some area suburbs.)

My point is that there's a larger reality, a bigger lens through which to view Milwaukee and its neighbors than the one that McIlheran uses today.


Rick Esenberg said...

Jim, live in the now, man. I will remind you again of an intelligent thing I once heard your former boss Norquist. You can't build a city on charity. In the same way, you can't build it by crafting policy in a way that frustrates what people would otherwise want to do. We build roads because people want to go where they lead. We don't build light rail because the cost per passenger mile is roughly on a par with space travel.
If the city's message to the region is shut up and pay us, don't be surprised if the response is indifference.

James Rowen said...

Actually, Rick, John's line was "You can't build a city on pity," and I'm not suggesting anything different.

Just looking for historical accuracy, and political reality. Roads get built through an arrangement that includes gas taxes, highway lobby-influenced construction and planning, and other things, including tax breaks for homeowners and TIF financing for developers.

It ain't just an aggregate of individual preferences/

Light rail was a development tool as well as a transit system, an asset that would have helped the city position itself strategically in the region and competitively with other similar cities. That's why most cities in the US are building or running them. Milwaukee's was killed by Waukesha politics, period.

If you want to talk about per-ride costs, then let's go for toll roads, too, so users really pay the true costs of road construction, maintenance, plowing, patrolling, and so on.