When Regional Equity Trumps City Incorporation (and Suburban Independence)

by Martin Harris

Like your Humble Scribe, you need be merely an amateur student of history to earn a chuckle over the “be careful what you wish for, because you may get it” time-line of American urban evolution. As the 19th century unrolled, farm population, thanks to productivity gains based on mechanization, was decreasing, and city population, thanks to an expanding manufacturing-and-trade economy, was increasing. There wasn’t yet much of a middle class or suburbia in the modern sense, and as the post-Civil War years brought such urban amenities as sidewalks and running water, fire protection and sewage disposal, city taxpayers declined to extend these services to socially-lesser rural folks still out there beyond the streetlamps. One of the first to draw its boundaries tightly around itself for economic separation from the countryfolk was St. Louis City, seceding from the eponymous County in 1876. By 1892 Rutland City incorporated for the same reason. Urban-superiority attitudes haven’t changed much since: in the mid-1960’s there was Carris Reels CEO Henry Carris, on a Rutland Area Vocational Center planning committee, telling his (then-farm-country) Shrewsbury counterpart that “we don’t need your kids; all they bring us is the cows**t on their shoes” and in the mid-80’s there was a group of Williamstown soccer-moms picketing the State Health Department in Burlington and telling Commissioner Dr. Roberta Coffin that “you’re not going to treat us like a bunch of farmers” because they disapproved of her in-their-view-inadequate response to a water-quality scare at the Elementary School. Irony number 1: by the time Rutland City embraced incorporation, the new electric street cars had already begun to sprout middle-class commuting suburbs beyond big-city boundaries; and Irony number 2: since the late 50’s there have been continuing efforts by central cities to capture the wealth in the suburbs and exurbs which, urbanists now claim to believe, has been unjustly taken from the more-deserving recipients downtown. Now, there’s a new political push for “regional equity” which is urbanist code for wealth-removal from the suburbs, exurbs, and beyond, for “social-justice- investment” in the central cities.

With respect to the once-urban middle-class, which began its serious suburbanization flight in the mid-20’s, accelerated in the mid-50’s, and pretty much ended after the school-desegregation struggles of the 60’s and 70’ s the “removal” noun-of-choice is “re-capture” because the underlying argument is that their departure and subsequent prosperity was “unfair”. With respect to most of the younger Beyond-the-Urban-Boundary demographic, most of whom were never true urbanites, the noun is “capture” because the underlying argument is that they should be operating their trades, professions, commerce, and manufacturing within the cities, for whose benefit they can be taxed, and not out in the ‘burbs-and-beyond, where they can’t.

First city to do a 180 on incorporation was Miami FL in 1957, which became Miami-Dade County as the Beyond-the-Urban-Boundary pink stucco houses were built in large (taxable) numbers for former downtowners and for former hotel-guest snowbirds . The Census Bureau had enabled the effort by inventing Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas in 1910. Since then SMSA’s have gone through multiple re-definitions, always basing surrounding-county membership on urban-center commuting statistics. But now, increasingly, the BUB population doesn’t commute: the jobs, enterprises, commerce, and laboratories are in exurban-and-beyond venues, conveniently near the single-family housing. In this new model, all of Vermont could be defined as a politically-captureable wealth-shed with a huge monetary (tax) debt and a moral obligation to support “regional equity”, owed to the 30-million population cluster/megalopolis of older central cities informally known as “BosWash” , along the seaboard to its South and East. Political moves are afoot –think the quiet new Building One America movement sotto voce encouraged, supported, and directed from the White House—to make it all happen.

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If you haven’t heard much, so far, of BOA, that’s by intent: the underlying political/demographic calculus isn’t favorable. With some 80% of the population (and voters) now residing and, mostly, earning and generating wealth, in the new BUB-and-beyond zip-codes, it’s not easy to strategize getting these non-urbanites-by-choice to rejoin, willingly, the central cities from which most of their parents or grandparents strove mightily to escape; nor to strategize a persuasive social-justice argument aimed at re-distributing their mostly-hard-earned wealth from the BUB earners and investors to the within-the-city-lines disadvantaged (and in that status for whatever set of reasons) under the rubric of “regional equity”. That’s why the support is expected to come, with “guidance”, from central-city beneficiaries and their similar socio-economic-status counterparts in some precincts of the older inner-ring suburbs, like Pasadena in CA and Mt. Vernon in NY, just enough to out-vote resistance elsewhere in the BUB electorate.

For reading material to flesh out the long-standing anti-suburbs superior-urbanite mindset, there’s no shortage of books published, mostly since the massive post-WWII middle-class urban exodus, typically describing the then-new governmental mortgage, highway-building, and even the GI Bill Veterans Educational Assistance Programs as the malign forces enabling urban renters to become suburban owners of “ticky-tack” housing: such titles as “The Crabgrass Frontier” , “Bourgeois Nightmares”, “Sprawl”, and “The Insolent Chariots” convey the urban-elite distaste for the selfish choices of their own peers and for the governmental-subsidy (supposed) errors which made the exodus possible and, therefore, which now need governmental correction. For a recent diatribe on the subject, one of the best (worst?) is “Place Matters”, authors Peter Dreier et al, in which their view of households living and working Beyond-the-Urban-Boundary might be (perhaps-over?) summarized as “middle-class (b or w) free-choice flight is evil but under-class relocation by government into-BUB-destinations is noble”. For the politics of the new regional-equity campaign, there’s one new book: “Spreading the Wealth”, author Stanley Kurtz. He summarizes the objectives of mandatory BUB assimilation into/under regional control thus: “the idea is to take the suburbs and split them against themselves” (see electoral calculus, above) and then “1) re-distribute suburban money to the cities; 2) force middle-class suburbanites back to the cities; and 3) force the urban poor out into the suburbs.” How? More next week.