How to save the burbs

Now for a time-out from our glorious war for a profound message about our future. Granted, it is easier and more fun to blow up Iraqi cities than it is to rebuild or even maintain our own towns, but most of us do have to live here.

And we’re running out of room, mostly because we insist on repeatedly fouling our own nest and moving to the next tree. We usually call this growth.

The real name for it is “unchecked urban sprawl.” Everyone knows this happened to Detroit. Fewer people realize that it has been happening to the older suburbs for a long time too, as we push out farther and farther, beyond Clarkston to the north, and to the far stretches of Livingston County to the west. Yes, a lot of folks, especially those in Lincoln Navigators, will have a very hard time (sob) if the Arabs again cut off the oil — or even when gas stations permanently raise the price of gas to $2.50 a gallon to capitalize on the war.

Eventually, there will be many grim little days of reckoning.

Meanwhile, what bureaucrats call the infrastructure — bridges and streets and sewer lines — in older, established communities like Wyandotte and Warren and Ferndale is crumbling.

“Things are wearing out,” Ruth Canfield, the mayor of Dearborn Heights, told me. Her city isn’t that old; it was incorporated in 1963. But most of its water and sewer lines are older than that, and the cost of replacing them is beyond that small city’s means. Multiply that many times, and you’ll have the real story.

What’s encouraging is that somebody is finally doing something about it. Older suburbs are finally realizing that their problem is more rot than race, and last year they quietly created something deceptively called the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

Twenty years ago, you’d have expected a group with a name like that to want to build a Berlin Wall along Eight Mile Road. Except this alliance, led by forward-thinking people like Ferndale City Manager Tom Barwin and Taylor Mayor Greg Pitoniak, gets it.

They want to preserve quality of life. “We’re not against growth,” Jim Townsend, the MSA’s executive director, told me. “What we are against is letting our established communities decay.” For years, developers and their lobbyists spread the lie that places like Taylor and Southfield had more in common with the new ticky-tacky being thrown up 50 miles away than they did with bad old Detroit.

That was wearing thin even before a recent study by good old SEMCOG, the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments, estimated that “overall, the cost of maintaining southeast Michigan’s roads, bridges, sewers and water systems will exceed the money available to do the job by $60 billion” over the next quarter-century.

That, to any sane person, ought to be far scarier than Saddam. Naturally, no government would even dream of paying that much to save us from drowning in potholes filled with our own polluted water and backed-up poop. After all, you could buy a good small war for $60 billion, depending on the price of body bags.

But we’d better do something, and the Michigan Suburbs Alliance is trying. Under the radar, the group has already opened an office (for now, located in Ferndale’s City Hall), hired Townsend to run it, and signed up 20 cities as members.

The immediate goal is nothing as grand as rebuilding our infrastructure, not yet. MSA is trying as a first step to help local governments achieve some stability in this era of ballooning budget deficits. This Friday, it will hold its first annual meeting at 9:30 a.m. in the Taylor Sportsplex on Telegraph Road to discuss that.

Anyone who cares about cities, or their quality of life, might try to attend; call or e-mail Townsend (248-546-2380 or [email protected]) for details.

Those who are trying to save our older suburbs have a guru, by the way: Myron Orfield, a law professor, urbanologist, and a state senator in Minnesota. His book, American Metro Politics: The New Suburban Reality, will do more to make you realize what’s really happening than a lifetime of reading the newspapers.

He was in town a few weeks ago to talk to some legislators and policy planners. His studies indicate cities might make it if they keep their appetite for new land down to only 2.5 times population growth. Metro Detroit is consuming new land at a rate a dozen times faster. “We’re a family of three trying to live in a 10-bedroom mansion,” a frustrated Townsend told me. If we were a business with a cost structure so out of whack, we would be forced to undergo dramatic restructuring — or face insolvency.

Unfortunately, it looks like our top priorities for the next few years will be to rebuild Iraq instead, but that’s show biz.


Speaking of Americanism: Two weeks ago I mentioned that U.S. Rep. John Conyers playfully answered his phone, “Impeachment Committee.” A reader from Toledo wrote to ask whether Conyers was a traitor. What seems clear to me is that he is a patriot instead, if only for his insistence that we remember that the Constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress alone. “There is a whole field of literature about why (the Founding Fathers) did it,” Conyers told me. “They didn’t want to invest the executive powers of the president, the commander in chief and the right to start a war all in one person.”

They had, come to think of it, plenty of experience with a tyrant named George.

Say … don’t suppose we could get the Shrub to put us on the enemies list, do you? If we surrendered without a fight, would the feds rebuild Detroit if we installed a pro-American government? Just a thought.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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