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Discourage sprawl; encourage integration

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, Jan. 19, 2003

By Thomas Hylton

In the four decades since Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, America has made extraordinary strides toward racial equality - integration in the workplace, an expanding black middle class, the election of blacks to high political office. In fact, judging from the cries of outrage over Sen. Trent Lott's favorable reference to segregation, one might conclude America now wholeheartedly embraces racial diversity.

Unfortunately, when it comes to where we live and send our children to school, our nation - including Wisconsin - is little better than it was in 1963.

About 17 percent of the residents of the four-county Milwaukee metropolitan region are African-American, but more than 98 percent of these African-Americans live in just one county - Milwaukee. Four of five Milwaukee public school students are minorities. Suburban schools, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly white.

Prior to the 1960s, segregation was overt and sanctioned by government policy. The Federal Housing Administration worked hand in glove with the real estate, lending, and insurance industries to limit blacks to specific neighborhoods. Despite this, blacks and whites still shared the same mayor, council, taxes, and public services, including (in the north) public schools, because most people still lived in cities and towns.

Thanks to the spread of the amorphous, low density suburb, however, segregation today is far more spacial. Middle class whites live in newer suburban municipalities where taxes are lower and schools are better. But minorities, because they have lower incomes on average, live in the cities (like Milwaukee), where housing is affordable but their access to suburban jobs and opportunities for upward mobility are limited.

In one of his apologies, Sen. Lott said that "segregation is a stain on our nation's soul," and it surely is. Unfortunately, it's the way most of us live.

That's why I'm encouraged that the United Methodist Church, with representatives from Wisconsin and 12 other north-central states, recently addressed suburban sprawl at conference in Kenosha.

Suburban sprawl has been rightly condemned as ugly, inefficient, and environmentally harmful. But the moral implications of a system that isolates millions of minorities and poor people have barely been mentioned.

From Henry Ward Beecher to Martin Luther King to James Groppi, the church has always been in the forefront of American social justice movements. Church groups often grapple with the local fallout from suburban-sprawl issues like neighborhood decline and the lack of affordable housing. But until recently, congregations haven't banded together to tackle the "big picture" issue itself. The formation of Wisdom, an association of Wisconsin church congregations to influence statewide issues, is one such effort. The United Methodist conference is potentially another.

"We've come to realize that sprawl is a moral issue," said one of the conference organizers, the Rev. Nancy Rethford of Christ UMC in Elmhurst, Ill. "We need to create communities that house people of all ages, races, and incomes."

The main argument in favor of suburban sprawl is that it's what Americans want. People favor living and working at low densities protected by zoning laws that uphold property values. But few understand the ramifications of that lifestyle for society. If no middle class person wants poor and working class people to dwell nearby, then segregation will live forever.

Suburban sprawl could not have happened without massive government intervention in the marketplace, starting as far back as the 1940s. For example:

  • Lavish spending on highways, subsidized by general taxation, opened up huge areas for development.
  • The mortgage policies of the Federal Housing Administration favored new housing in developing suburbs over existing housing in cities and towns.
  • Public housing projects were built exclusively in city neighborhoods, virtually guaranteeing their decline.
  • Zoning laws, by segregating land uses, made driving unavoidable.

Integration and social cohesiveness can be strengths of traditional towns, because they consist of walkable neighborhoods that mix stores and workplaces with housing in every price range. But suburbia separates stores from workplaces from housing, and further separates housing by price range. By its nature, suburbia is segregated and disconnected. And highly expensive.

In the early 1990s, Florida's Palm Beach County School District briefly tried to desegregate its schools by desegregating neighborhoods. The district signed agreements with developers and homeowners' associations that allowed children to attend neighborhood schools if the communities promoted integrated housing.

For George de Guardiola, principal developer of Wellington, one of those communities, integration was difficult to achieve. "We had no employment base, no mixture of activities," he said. "Even though we had housing in a variety of price ranges, we couldn't find enough blacks who would commute somewhere else."

Since then, Mr. de Guardiola has become an advocate of traditional neighborhood development. He designed one of America's largest such communities, Abacoa, situated in northern Palm Beach County. Abacoa will eventually house 15,000 residents within walking distance of a traditional main street with stores and office buildings.

"Once you have a variety of educational and recreational opportunities, combined with jobs, housing affordability and a reasonable transportation network, you can attract a racial balance," he said.

Wisconsin took a major step toward promoting traditional neighborhoods with its 1999 Smart Growth initiative, which requires all municipalities with 12,500 residents or more to allow traditional neighborhood development. But more can be done:

  • Oregon and Washington have drawn urban growth boundaries around all their cities and towns. Pedestrian communities are encouraged inside the boundaries, while land outside the boundaries is reserved for agriculture and forestry.
  • Montgomery County, Maryland, requires new developments to set aside 15 percent of all dwelling units as affording housing. This has led to communities like Avenel, which has modest homes for the working poor amidst million-dollar mansions.
  • Oak Park, Illinois, one of America's loveliest communities, houses people of all races, ages and incomes on tree lined streets within walking distance of stores, offices, and train service to Chicago. For 30 years, the village government has supported a non-profit housing center and residence corporation that attract and maintain diversity.

Last year, departing Milwaukee County executive F. Thomas Ament urged the merger of all local municipalities within the county (or beyond) into one government, as Indianapolis, Nashville, and (most recently) Louisville have done. It reduces the cost of government and distributes the tax burden more fairly. A municipal merger would make Milwaukee more competitive with its suburbs.

I grew up in a white world, but 30 years of living in an integrated neighborhood have taught me to appreciate people whose race, background, income or education are different from mine. Physical proximity, I think, encourages the personal contact needed to dissolve fear and alienation. And rather than detracting from my town, new neighbors and new growth enhance it. Every new store, office, and dwelling - sensitively designed - adds to the richness and fabric of my community.

A century ago, Wisconsin's Progressive ideals were the talk of America. Perhaps, with the help of its churches, Wisconsin can be a leader once again.



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