My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

The End of City Life?

A few things in the paper recently have me thinking, again, about the desperate situation facing the American city. And the story is pretty grim right now. It's not a question of the insufficient economic growth or lack of jobs which has plunged our cities into near permanent fiscal crisis. Instead, it's just a reflection of the city's place in the contemporary American political economy.

First of all, we learned this week that the Chicago Transit Authority is planning to enforce drastic cuts unless the state government agrees to bail the agency out.

CTA in for bumpy ride
54 bus lines to be cut, fares to rise without state money

By Jon Hilkevitch and Virginia Groark
Tribune staff reporters
Published April 14, 2005

Forced to choose among five painful packages of service cuts and fare hikes, the Chicago Transit Authority board opted Wednesday for a surprise sixth plan that is certain to put the crunch on rush-hour commuters: a modified Sunday transit schedule that operates seven days a week.

Most CTA express bus routes and the Purple Line Evanston Express "L" trains would be scuttled, and some fares would rise to $2.

Fifty-four bus routes that don't run on Sundays would be eliminated from weekday service, resulting in severe overcrowding and up to hourlong waits for buses. Another 35 bus routes would be cut on Saturdays.

Officials said the plan, which also includes laying off about 2,000 CTA employees, will take effect July 17 unless state lawmakers boost transit funding to close a $55 million deficit in the agency's more than $1 billion 2005 budget.

This is, of course, the result of us greedy city folks living beyond our means and demanding that hardworking suburbanites pay our way, right?

Wrong. The culprit is in this case is something most people regard as a good thing: the Americans with Disabilities Act. Buried deep in the article is this gem, on the planned fare increases:
Cash-paying bus and train riders --who make up about 27 percent of CTA customers--would fork over $2 per ride, a 25-cent increase, and they would no longer be able to buy transfers. The fare would remain $1.75 for bus riders who use the regular magnetic-strip transit cards.

But rail customers who use the cards would pay $2--a move designed to encourage more riders to buy Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus "smart cards," weekly passes or 30-day passes.

The fare increases would not affect CTA customers who use passes or the smart cards. But a minimum of $20 would need to be added to a Chicago Card or a Chicago Card Plus, instead of $10 currently, to receive a 10 percent bonus.

Reduced fares paid in cash by senior citizens, students and people with disabilities would increase to $1 from 85 cents, and transfers would be unavailable to these customers.

The fare for paratransit services, which costs the CTA $26 per ride, would double to $3.50 per ride. A 30-day paratransit pass would increase from $75 to $150.

The way the funding system is set up, half the cost of a CTA ride (about $3.50) is supposed to be covered by the rider, and half by the state. But the cost of paratransit - the ubiquitous white vans that carry disabled and frail elderly people, including some who I work with, wherever they need to go - is $26, the same price everyone else pays. The result - an extra cost of $50 million dollars, roughly the same size as the CTA's budget shortfall.

Now I have nothing aganist disabled people or the ADA in general, but this is a fine example of an unfuned mandate on local government. If the Federal government wants to require urban public transit systems to provide paratransit services, it should pony up the money. It's unfair to make public transit riders pay a disproportionate share of the cost for this service, especially when the system barely has the funds to operate bare-bones service now. Unfortunately, in the third decade of the New Federalism, municipal and county governments are expected to fund all services themselves. Responsibility for raising funds is pushed down to the lowest level possible.

This leads to a situation in which the majority of middle-class and wealthy citizens are able to avoid paying for services used by the working class and poor citizens, simply by living in a different taxing area from them. By using zoning to minimize the number of poor people within their limits, while maximizing the number of tax generators like corporate headquarters and Wal Marts, many suburbs are able to minimize the tax burden on their well-heeled residents by preventing any money from being redistributed to other communities. The result is low-tax communities which, by providing few services, can attract more buisinesses and residents to continue to grow the tax base and shrink the tax obligations of each individual. Meanwhile, communities with poor residents, including most central cities, must keep increasing taxes to provide services, causing more businesses to flee to the tax havens nearby.

The CTA situation will get fixed if the Governor ever gets off his ass and does something about it. But there are other issues as well, with the same root cause.

Chicago schools brace for cuts
800 teaching jobs, programs targeted

By Tracy Dell'Angela, Tribune staff reporter. Tribune staff reporter Christi Parsons contributed to this report
Published April 12, 2005

Facing a $175 million deficit next year, Chicago schools expect to slash an estimated 800 teaching jobs, cuts that could save the district about $50 million but force most of the system's schools to raise class size and trim programs.

. . .

The job cuts represent 3 percent of the district's teaching staff of 26,000. But school advocates argue that Chicago's 600 schools already suffer from stripped-down academic programs and crowded classrooms.

. . .

Elementary schools face staff cuts because their enrollment is expected to drop by 4,000 pupils citywide, although this doesn't include the nearly 2,000 children expected to flow into city schools from the 17 Chicago Catholic schools slated to close next year, budget director Pedro Martinez said.

"They say it's about enrollment. But what they are doing is balancing the budget on the backs of children," said Ted Dallas, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. "It's scary, and I believe it will get worse. They have a lot of extra programs, and if the extras are cut, you're going to hurt the kids."

Schools are the best example of what I'm talking about. By funding schools mostly through local property taxes, rich people can achieve low taxes and excellent schools in their own little suburbs, and free themselves for having to pay for the education of poor children a few miles away, but in a different district.

For decades now, economic elites have fled the central cities for these tax haven communities. Whatever you may have heard about "gentrification," the fact is that this process of segregating the poor in bankrupt, decaying central cities continues throughout most of the country. Where will this all lead?


By Tim Jones
Tribune national correspondent
Published April 11, 2005

DETROIT -- This is a city that always seems to have a hand-and-glove relationship with trouble, and right now the fit is exceptionally snug.

Deficits, service cutbacks, scandals, petty politics, people heading for the exits by the thousands. General Motors Corp., headquartered in the gleaming riverfront silos known as the Renaissance Center, has slashed profit forecasts and is taking the cleaver to its workforce. Sound familiar?

But today when people talk about how to fix this former industrial giant, the talk goes way beyond the garden-variety solutions of taxes and bailouts and restructuring and economic development. Now they include receivership--the severe step of the state taking over this sprawling city, unprecedented for a municipality this size--and a stunningly novel proposal: plowing under large, desolate sections of Detroit and farming them.

Cities across the nation, including Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland, dabble in farming, with small plots used primarily for education and community-building purposes. About 30 acres in Detroit currently are farmed.

Going back to the earth in a big way, though, is groundbreaking.

. . .

[T]he public acknowledgment to at least discuss a proposal by urban designers at the University of Michigan is a measure of Detroit's trouble and the frustration people feel when they weigh the less-than-appealing or wholly unrealistic options before them.

Nolan Finley, the editorial page editor of The Detroit News, wrote recently, "We may reach a point where struggling against the inevitable is pointless. Then, the challenge will be putting all that empty land to use."

Cities lose people, often by the hundreds of thousands. But they don't physically shrink, which in Detroit has left vast stretches of land pockmarked with dilapidated, vacant houses that prove to be havens of crime.

"People are leaving and nobody's coming back," said Rick Samyn, a Capuchin brother who runs an East Side food kitchen and farms about 1 acre on a former lumber company site, bounded by a monastery and mostly battered houses. This is an odd place to see a red tractor and two greenhouses, let alone a large lot being prepared for lettuce, onions, peppers and other vegetables. From one greenhouse, Samyn watches young men with cell phones deal in drugs a block-and-a-half away, near the abandoned aluminum smelter.

"You're not going to fill this city up again," he said.

. . .

With 139 square miles of land--about 60 percent the size of Chicago but with less than a third of Chicago's population--Detroit is a city of weed-choked, rubble-strewn, wide open spaces. About 12,000 homes are abandoned, waiting to be demolished.

. . .

Detroit, which now has around 900,000 people, has lost more than half of its population in the past 50 years, and people still are leaving. Ninety-thousand people moved out of Detroit between 1995 and 2000, and 10,000-to-15,000 people have left annually since then, said Kurt Metzger, research director of Wayne State University's Center for Urban Studies.

"Detroit used to be explained as just white flight. Now it's African-Americans--middle-class and upper-middle-class people with kids--leaving," Metzger said. "If you're the mayor of Detroit, where the hell do you turn?"

The exodus is taking a big toll. Dozens of schools--public and private--are to be closed. City pension and health-care costs are soaring. Water pipes are crumbling. Services are slated to be cut in Kilpatrick's upcoming budget.

The solution, in other words, would be to completely abandon Detroit's neighborhoods and plow them back under the earth. Sound farfetched? Some people out there are laughing right now and saying that getting rid of D-town might be a good idea. But anywhere you move all those poor people to is just going to end up as another big ghetto. The fact is, the situation American cities find themselves in today is completely unworkable.

Until a few months ago, it seemed Chicago had found ways to pull itself out of the spiral - now it's clear we will need outside help from Springfield or Washington to avoid becoming Detroit.

And why should anyone help us? asks my straw man. Well, there are important reasons America should continue to have major cities and not plow them into farmland.

Cities are dense. Density provokes innovation and exposes people to new ideas. Density supports small business development - in less dense areas, a business often must rely on getting the patronage of a large proportion of the population, while density allows for the development of niche markets with a large enough customer base to survive. (Think about sushi, massage, or hair places specializing in dredlocks). Large populations in large areas make institutions such as research hospitals a practical possibility.

Density is inherently green - I know it doesn't look that way, but city life is better for the environment than is suburbia. City dwellers live close together and don't drive as much or as far. We tend to live closer to work. We are more likely to run errands on foot, by bicycle, or using mass transit.

If I keep ranting this thing will never get posted. But you get the idea.

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