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September|October 2005

Windier City, Bigger Apple

Would expanding the boundaries of Chicago and New York to include their suburbs make them greater cities?

By Minor Myers III

WHEN PEOPLE FROM SCHAUMBURG, ILL., travel to other parts of the country, they typically don't introduce themselves as being from Schaumburg. They say they are from Chicago, which, in a sense, is true. They might not live in Hyde Park or down the street from Wrigley Field, but they do live in metropolitan Chicago, an entity that extends far beyond the Chicago city limits.

A metropolitan area, like the one surrounding Chicago, is a geographic unit that is socially and economically bound, generally by commuters, to one large city. It includes the city but also encompasses the surrounding suburbs, bedroom communities, and sometimes even other cities. According to the Census Bureau, which keeps track of the country's metropolitan areas, metro Chicago runs as far east as Gary, Ind., and as far north as Kenosha, Wis.—a span of 95 miles.

While Chicago may exert a powerful economic and social influence over its surrounding communities, it does not have political control over them, and that's true of most other American metropolitan areas as well. On average, metro areas include more than 40 local governments of irregular size and shape. Metropolitan Chicago, one of the nation's largest metro areas, contains 261 autonomous cities and towns, making a map of the area look a bit like a giant shattered dinner plate.

With a few exceptions, the residents of metropolitan areas thus rely on their local government, not the big city or some larger metropolitan authority, to provide basic services like schools, public libraries, police, parks, clean water, and trash disposal. These services are funded largely through local property taxes, so where property values are high, towns tend to be flush with tax revenue and can pay for first-rate services. Where property values are low, there isn't enough money to go around, and services suffer. This makes for stark differences, particularly between wealthy suburbs and more economically strained cities.

These disparities between municipalities so closely related and in such close proximity to one another have led some to suggest that cities should exert more political control over the surrounding areas—in other words, that Schaumburg should become part of Chicago. A consolidated metropolitan area could provide services more efficiently (are hundreds of fire departments really better than one?) and could deploy the area's wealth more fairly, since the wealthy suburbs would not be able to hoard all the tax revenue.

Is such consolidation possible in today's metropolitan areas? And even if it were, would it be a good idea for a place like Schaumburg to give up its autonomy and become part of the big city? Answers to both questions lie, to some degree, in the answer to a third: How did our metro areas—home to nearly 80 percent of the American population—come to be so fragmented in the first place?

THE POLITICAL SCIENTIST RICHARDSON DILWORTH offers an ingenious, if incomplete, answer to that question in a new book, The Urban Origins of Suburban Autonomy. Though the notion of a unified metro Chicago or metro New York may sound like an academic's pipe dream, there were moments in the development of urban America, typically in the late 19th century, when cities became expansionist, seeking to gain control over the surrounding communities. Explaining why suburbs resisted annexation during these periods of expansion has long kept historians busy: Scholars have found answers in everything from the desire for racial or socioeconomic homogeneity in suburbs to the machinations of land developers.

Dilworth doesn't so much set out to debunk these theories as to suggest that a crucial factor has been overlooked, one without which the suburbs couldn't have preserved their autonomy, no matter how parochial their residents or greedy their developers. The roots of suburban autonomy, Dilworth argues, lie in infrastructure, that is, the ability of the suburbs to provide their residents with lighting grids, sewer systems, and clean drinking water.

AT THE HEART OF DILWORTH'S THEORY is an interesting paradox. In pioneering public works projects in the mid-19th century, American cities created infrastructure that the suburbs badly wanted, and they used these improvements to lure towns into joining the big city. But while those public works projects succeeded in convincing some towns to surrender their autonomy, they inspired still more to preserve it. For the suburbs, becoming part of the big city meant getting cleaner water, but also dirtier politics. Public works projects were profit centers for those with a taste for bribery and kickbacks; cities were eager to extend their infrastructure in large part because doing so offered city politicians more opportunities for graft. Wary of urban corruption, the suburbs discovered an alternative: They built their own infrastructure, and they used the city's contractors to do it.

Dilworth builds his argument for the importance of infrastructure around a set of case studies of metropolitan New York City, including the expansion of the city into the present-day Bronx. Before 1874, New York City included only what is now Manhattan. During the first half of the 19th century, the population on that island had grown dramatically, from around 60,000 people in 1800 to 814,000 in 1860. The city's quickly growing population caused problems, yet inspired urban improvements.

After yellow fever epidemics in 1803 and 1805, New York adopted its grid of streets and avenues, which was designed to promote orderly expansion northward and to prevent disease by letting air circulate through the city. When disease persisted—yellow fever struck again in 1822, and cholera came in 1832—the city began planning an aqueduct that would deliver water from the Croton River in Westchester. It delivered its first wholesome drops in 1842, making New York the second city in the United States (after Philadelphia) to establish a public water works.

Public works projects like the Croton Aqueduct succeeded in improving conditions in the city, but there was an unwanted side effect. The crooked politicians of the time, with their hands already in various tills, soon came to realize that there was big money in infrastructure. It's no coincidence that it was New York's most notorious political machinist, Boss Tweed, who helped orchestrate the consolidation of city authority over water, sewers, and streets into a new Department of Public Works—or that he ended up as the agency's first commissioner. The biggest money was in the construction and installation of infrastructure like water systems and pipes. In the 1860s and 1870s, the term "laying pipe" became a catch-all phrase for the doings of corrupt politicians.

Ever hungry for kickbacks, Tweed and others looked to expand New York's boundaries. But expansion was not completely in their control. In the United States, a community may be joined to a neighboring town through a process called annexation. An annexed area becomes a part of the town it joins, equally subject to its taxes and entitled to its services.

The process varies from state to state, but it generally requires the approval of voters in both the annexing town and the annexed area. "As cities attempted to expand their borders by annexing outlying communities," Dilworth writes, "they met with resistance from suburbanites" who feared the city's "venal political organizations."

Three towns across the Harlem River from Manhattan—Morrisania, West Farms, and Yonkers—debated offers of annexation by New York City in the early 1870s. The population of Westchester County had tripled during the 1850s, and its residents were certainly keen on obtaining the fruits of urban improvements. Eager for access to the city's clean water, Morrisania and West Farms agreed to become part of New York City.

Yonkers, however, resisted. Near the end of 1870, The New York Times reported that "in the green pastures of Westchester county the 'Ring' "—Tweed's gang—"sees fresh mines of future wealth." Yonkers's citizens were not interested in seeing their community mined. One local newspaper wrote in worried tones about being "gobbled" by New York. Though the power of the Tweed ring ebbed in 1871, Yonkers residents knew city politics had hardly been wiped clean of corruption. Rather than join New York, Yonkers secured its independence in 1872 when the legislature approved its city charter.

Morrisania and West Farms probably had less choice in the matter than Yonkers, which was by 1870 more populous and more industrial than its Westchester neighbors. Those smaller communities didn't have the means to build the infrastructure that they could count on by becoming part of New York City.

Yonkers, on the other hand, began work in September 1873 on its own aqueduct that would deliver water from the Sprain Brook. The project moved quickly, in large part because so many involved in the process had previous experience building other cities' aqueducts. Contractors from as far away as Burlington, Vt., submitted bids; the pump for the waterworks came from a manufacturer that had supplied similar systems to over 30 municipalities across the country.

MANY WHO BELIEVE THAT SUBURBAN AUTONOMY HAS RUN AMOK—loosely grouped together as "regionalists"—may read Dilworth's book with misty eyes. If only the city's tantalizing offer of improved infrastructure hadn't been poisoned by crooked politics, American cities might look very different today. While Dilworth's argument is compelling, it's important to recognize its limitations. Infrastructure doesn't explain how the dinner plate broke—many communities that are now part of metro areas existed as self-contained, self-supporting entities long before trains and cars brought them into the orbit of the big city. What Dilworth's book explains is why, at a historical moment when America's cities tried to glue the shards together, they had limited success.

It's a significant distinction, because explaining how Yonkers survived the threat of annexation in the 1870s is different from explaining why Yonkers remains separate today. The desire for suburban autonomy is hardly limited to the areas that were lucky enough to preserve their independence by developing their own infrastructure. Just look to the experience of some of Dilworth's own examples. In New York City, which reached its present bulk in the great consolidation of 1898 that added Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, the city has recently had to fight a secession movement. Staten Island, home of Republicans and soon a NASCAR track, feels unrepresented by New York politics. Los Angeles, which Dilworth mentions briefly, has also had to beat back a secession effort from the San Fernando Valley, a portion of L.A. that in the early 20th century accepted annexation in exchange for water, but now feels exploited by the city it joined. The persistence of suburban autonomy, in the suburbs and even in boroughs long ago subsumed by a city, suggests that its roots run far deeper than infrastructure.

That's bad news for regionalists, but though Dilworth's book doesn't wade into it, the debate over expanding urban borders continues to rage in the academy and to spill out into public discussion as well. Regionalists like David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque who writes on urban policy, argue that the jurisdiction of the city ought to match the "real" city, meaning the entire metropolitan area. Laurie Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Illinois, has even proposed that cities be given the power to annex neighboring areas without their consent.

A single, overarching local government does have intuitive appeal. Bigger is better when it comes to all sorts of things—think of supermarkets or Wal-Mart or Home Depot—and though there are important differences between a product like trash bags and a service like trash removal, many local services are susceptible to economies of scale.

Towns in metropolitan areas, however, have been able to take advantage of this by consolidating their authority over discrete services. The South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority provides water to 12 towns in the New Haven area. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District is responsible for sewers and water treatment facilities in the City of Cleveland and 59 other municipalities in three counties.

Local governments can also contract with private businesses for other services, like trash collection. Allentown, Penn., like many other American localities, contracts with Waste Management, Inc. to collect the town's residential and commercial trash. By pooling resources or turning to private markets, local governments can obtain the benefits of bigness without sacrificing the benefits of littleness.

The academic literature on the benefits of littleness is built on the seminal work of the economist Charles Tiebout. He and his successors posit that multiple, small governments compete with one another to offer better services for less cost (in taxes). What's more, local governments differentiate themselves by offering a variety of packages of goods and services to match their residents' preferences. A town with a large population of empty-nesters, for instance, may not want to spend as much money on schools as a town full of youngsters. And a resident who becomes dissatisfied with his town's package of goods, services, and taxes can "vote with his feet" and move somewhere with a more attractive bundle of services.

The Dartmouth economist William Fischel is a prominent exponent of Tiebout's hypothesis. His work, in the words of the Yale law professor Carol Rose, defends "local governments (especially the much maligned suburbs) for the range of choice that they offer citizens and the efficiency with which they deliver services to the citizens that choose them." According to this market-based defense of local governments, given the benefits of competition fostered by fragmentation and the ease with which governments can solve problems of smallness by pooling resources or contracting with private entities, there's no pressing reason—at least no pressing economic reason—why local governments need to band together to create monolithic entities. A pat on the back for Yonkers—and cold comfort for Staten Island.

THOUGH MOST ARE LIKELY NOT AWARE OF IT, Americans have registered their opinion on this debate and, unfortunately for regionalists, they like fragmented government. They like having a say in how their taxes are spent and sorting themselves according to their preferences for local services (though they may not always realize that's what they're doing). Given the tremendous electoral might of suburban voters and their perceived preference for localism, most elected politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, don't dare support the alteration of the current form of local government. Even some leading regionalists acknowledge that unified metropolitan governments probably aren't politically viable.

But the regionalist movement, or at least its spirit, is not quite dead. Regionalists are less concerned with the benefits of cross-borrowing privileges at the library than they are by the disparities between a metropolitan area's rich and poor areas. In preaching the gospel of redistribution, whereby a metro area's wealth might be allotted more fairly, they have earned some converts. Their most successful sermonizing focuses on one topic: schools. Though some states have altered their approach to school funding in the last generation, the balance continues to follow the old model of funding schools primarily through local property taxes. In those states, fragmented government leads to an allocation of resources that allows wealthy communities to produce good schools, and leaves poor communities with poor ones. In the affluent Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, for example, the average high school teacher earns over $74,000, and 84 percent of students meet state testing standards. By contrast, at Harper High School in the city of Chicago, teachers earn just under $63,000, and a mere 7 percent of the students meet the state standards. In a region where resources are shared across town lines, poor communities aren't necessarily condemned to having poor schools.

Regionalists have yet to convince any of America's major metro areas to consolidate, but this notion of redistribution has had some success at the state level, thanks to the courts. In Vermont, for example, the state Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the state Constitution creates a right to equal education. The system of local funding for education, the court concluded, violated that right. In response, the Vermont Legislature established a novel scheme for funding education that uses a statewide property tax. In towns with low property values, which formerly had to tax property at a high rate to support their schools, the education tax burden dropped. But in the 10 percent of towns with especially high property values, which had to tax their property under the old scheme at only a very low rate to raise enough money for schools, the uniform statewide rate sent taxes skyrocketing. Those communities, chiefly ski resort towns, howled in protest, and, though the education funding law has been revised to ease their burden, they still continue to fight. The town of Killington, one of the wealthiest towns in the state, is now seeking to secede from Vermont and join New Hampshire. Local autonomy, no historical accident, is here to stay.

Minor Myers III is a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

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