To hear Mayor Dave and Mayor Tom tell it I made a king-size mistake in organizing a Pint & Policy discussion last month around the lessons that Madison could learn from Milwaukee's many problems. They have a point. I did miss the obvious: I was uncommonly blunt when the zeitgeist of the moment is for everyone to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" around the campfire.
Indeed, why can't we all just get along? Look, Madison is working with its surrounding communities in the newly formed Collaboration Council, while Milwaukee and its perpetually warring suburbs have finally found a patch of common ground to promote southeastern Wisconsin as the "Milwaukee 7" to the outside world.
And look at Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Both of these guys have the friendly, reassuring demeanor of Mr. Rogers. (I bet they even have an array of comfortable cardigan sweaters in their closets). They're not at all like their bully boy predecessors Paul Soglin and John Norquist. Those guys would kick over the table to make a point and then punch a suburban mayor in the nose to make sure he was listening.
So maybe it is time for a new approach. Mayors Dave and Tom are hard at work forging the M-2 Collaborative where the state's two largest cities pull together on common goals. Go for it, guys.
But does mean that Madison still can't learn from Milwaukee's problems? No! I think Madison has to look closely at Milwaukee's weaknesses or risk similar problems taking root here and spreading: economic drain, racial/class polarity, bad schools, middle-class flight and state-imposed transportation plans designed for the benefit of suburban commuters rather than urban dwellers.
I'm a "Ruskite" in that regard. The centrifugal forces that favor suburban development'cheap land, freeways, simplified retail and residential construction, defacto exclusionary zoning, and more'are well known. Urban researcher David Rusk's contribution was to quantify how cities that grew either through annexation or consolidation still prospered by capturing the new development. Think of successful cities like Indianapolis, Seattle and Austin.
In contrast, cities whose borders were choked off by suburbs'Detroit, Cleveland, Newark and hundreds more Rust Belt cities in the Midwest and Northeast'declined as their economies sputtered and racial and class segregation became entrenched.
Milwaukee, of course, is a classic example of urban decline. A notorious state Supreme Court decision in the 1950s ended Milwaukee's growth and left the city surrounded by an iron ring of unfriendly suburbs. Things went steadily south.
A few years ago when I researched a column on Milwaukee I found that the economic boom of the 1990s had entirely passed the city by. Inflation-adjusted incomes rose a puny 4.3% over ten years, while Waukesha County's jumped by 20.7%. Milwaukee's black inner actually city saw a 6.1% decline in inflation-adjusted incomes from 1990 to 1999.
Job-wise, total employment in Milwaukee only edged up 1.2% in the 1990s, compared to a 40% jump in neighboring Washington County. Waukesha and Ozaukee counties showed similar muscular growth.
With that shift in economic and population growth came the inevitable political re-alignment that hurt the city even more. Milwaukee's massive infrastructure projects'the more than $1 billion spent on the construction of Miller Stadium and the Marquette interchange'were designed primarily to serve the needs of suburban commuters rather than urban dwellers.
Milwaukee's schools, meanwhile, were in crisis. Only 50% of 9th graders were expected to graduate from high school. On any given day, a quarter of Milwaukee high schools were playing hooky. Fewer than 30% of 10th graders tested "proficient" in the five basic subject areas.
What does any of this have to do with Madison and its mighty base of university and state employment and investment?
Just this: Madison is probably ten years or so away from reaching its ultimate borders, that historic door-closing moment when the city will no longer be able to annex its own suburban corn fields. Madison could find itself, in the worst-case scenario, in a situation comparable to Milwaukee's in the 1950s: Walled off from suburban prosperity.
Already we see some of the tell-tale signs of this urban dynamic. Madison's school enrolment is relatively stagnant and increasingly poor and minority while the suburban school enrollments are booming. The Veronas and Fitchburgs of Dane County are proving to be magnets for young families.
And does anyone doubt that Epic Systems' move from Madison to Verona is a landmark decision that for decades to come will fuel new suburban job-creation, residential construction and yet more shopping centers?
I don't want to be a total crab here. Many good things have happened in Milwaukee and Madison in recent years. Both of their downtowns have blossomed with new investment and a heavy demand for housing.
And I'll happily advise snobbish Madisonans to experience the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. I think it's the most dramatic piece of new architecture in the state. And I'd urged people to catch a concert at the restored Pabst Theater, which tops even Overture Hall as Wisconsin's premier concert space.
But let's not kid ourselves. Even with the boom in downtown living, the same relentless economic and social dynamics that favored the 'burbs over the past 60 years are still in play. Regionalism and cooperation can certainly mitigate them. Maybe we can all get along together and prosper! But it would be foolish for Madison not to look at Milwaukee to see how things can go very wrong.