Sunday, May 15, 2005

How Green is My Metropolis, Pt. 3: On Behalf of Neighborhoods

If you want to understand the genesis of this post, you should probably read "The Places I Have Come to Fear the Most," a post on suburbs, cities, and education over at Snarkmarket. You should also read David Owen's New Yorker essay "Green Manhattan" (courtesy of Greenbelt Alliance). Then read my two commentary essays on Owen, parts one and two. Then read all of the articles linked to by those posts, especially this one and this one. Then, for kicks, read my ode in praise of gardening. Yeah, that should probably do it.

To very briefly summarize Matt Thompson's Snarkmarket post: Matt, like a lot of suburban kids of our generation who grew up and moved to the city, thinks the suburbs are a bad deal: bad for the environment (Owen), bad for society (Pollan) , bad for the soul (Thompson). Ironic, since suburbs (and not cities) were supposed to be better for all of these things. Suburbs are like Adorno and Horkheimer's dialectic of enlightenment in little grass and pavement capsules. But, you know, with box stores.

Yet (Matt writes) for not-so-affluent or not-yet-so-affluent families with kids, cities aren't so great either. The public schools are usually terrible (if you're in Philadelphia, Chicago, or Detroit -- the three cities I've called home -- they're especially terrible) and the private schools are too expensive -- at least, too expensive for you. And while you and your friends might be able to live off cigarettes and cereal in a tiny, infested apartment whose biggest virtue is adjacency to gentrifying bars and a third-floor patio you can grill on, your five- and seven-year old can't. Chances are that if it's big enough and safe enough and nice enough, you can't afford it. You couldn't afford it before you had kids. You just didn't notice.

A surprising number of my friends have essentially chosen the city over children and are opting to remain childless: if not permanently, at least for a lot longer than our parents did. (Heck, my parents married at 19 and had four kids in seven years, all before they turned 30.) But let's suppose that, like most people, you'd like to at least leave the option of raising kids open at some point, whether your own or someone else's. And regardless at what age you decide to do it, you'd rather not do it in mind-numbing, natural-resource-depleting Nowheresville.

We could wait until petroleum and coal stocks deplete: then everyone just might be a little more motivated to find some good solutions. In the interest of laying the groundwork, though, I've come up with some thoughts and a few modest proposals for how to reconcile the twin charms of city and suburban life. As it turns out, a surprising number of problems can be solved by something so simple, it was there the entire time and we never even thought to see it. It's an old idea, and an old urban reality: neighborhoods.

To be more specific: old neighborhoods. In Philly, I've moved into one of the oldest: Germantown, in the Northwest. My house is a three-story twin, meaning it shares a wall with the house next door. It's almost 3000 square feet, and over 100 years old, built of stone, brick, and stucco, and traps heat like Satan's own tightly puckered asshole. (Too much? Okay, a little too much.) My neighbors and I have a little European-style enclosed gardens in the front (like most older communities on the east coast -- take that, Pollan!) with longer yards in the back. And we have our own downtown, on Germantown Avenue, with shops, banks, schools, churches, and restaurants in the oldest buildings in the neighborhood. It's also just twenty minutes away from Philly's Center City by commuter rail, car, or bus.

In case you can't tell, I like my new house.

But what does this have to do with schools, you ask? Aha! Here's the problem. The neighborhoods of Northwest Philadelphia, including Germantown, Manayunk, East Falls, Roxborough, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill are all wonderful, with their own identities. Chestnut Hill is the affluent, wasp-y small town at the very edge of the city; Manayunk is full of crunchy yuppies, with coffee shops, restaurants, gyms, and furniture stores; Mount Airy is almost a classic upper-middle-class suburb, only 300 years old and populated mostly by African-Americans and Jews; Germantown is a slightly older and shabbier version of the same, and so on.

The schools, though, like most of Philly's schools, are terrible. Let me rephrase: the elementary and junior high schools, which are local, are just fine. There are only two public high schools for the entire area: Germantown High School and Roxborough High School. GHS is filled mostly with black kids who beat each other up, fail aptitude tests and drop out; RHS is filled mostly with white kids who do the same thing. In Chestnut Hill and Manayunk, where the money is, there's no good reason to send your kids miles across town to go to those kinds of schools, so they don't. In particular, Manayunk's hot downtown and tiny houses attract the well-heeled childless looking for a taste of San Francisco, so it's not a problem; the millionaires in Chestnut Hill's mansions send their kids to private school.

The private schools in the Northwest, on the other hand, are stunningly good, and some of the oldest in the country: Germantown Friends (god bless the Quakers), William Penn Charter School (Quakers again), and Chestnut Hill Academy (Catholics, this time). They all have beautiful campuses, and they're all feeder schools for the Ivies. Expensive? You bet. More than $10,000/year in tuition for each of 'em.

But wait -- let's break that figure down. First -- and most people still don't know this -- all three of those schools, like many private schools, offer scholarships and tuition assistance based on both merit and financial need. William Penn, at least, like the Ivy League, tries to cover the full distance between tuition and a family's ability to pay. That's why tuition is so high; the wealthy students (and alumni) subsidize the poorer ones.

Also, let's compare the costs of a top urban private school with those of a highly ranked suburban public. Montgomery County, just outside of Philadelphia, touts their public schools as a selling point for living there rather than in Philly. Now, I like Montgomery County, especially its small, older towns which have knit themselves together to form suburban patches like the Main Line (where The Philadelphia Story was set). But the reason why schools (and services) are so much better there than in Philadelphia is in large part because their tax base is different. On average, you would pay twice as much in property tax in Montgomery County than you would in Philadelphia for a house at the same market value: say, $4000/year instead of $2000 for a $200,000 home. The wage tax offsets this a little bit, but not by much, and most people who live in the Philly suburbs work in the city and pay the wage tax anyway.

Furthermore, a $200,000 home in Philadelphia would be a $400,000 home in a comparable neighborhood in Montgomery County or suburban New Jersey. Why? Mostly because the schools in the suburbs are so good. Of course they are: through millages, assessments and real estate inflation, you've paid the tuition for them, and then some. In Philadelphia at least, for what you've saved on your mortgage payment and property taxes, even with two kids, you're easily halfway to breaking even on private school tuition. Add school vouchers and you're home.

Wait a minute -- vouchers? That's right, I said it. Vouchers.

Like most of us, I'm a public school kid from a public school family: I have a brother and an aunt who both teach in public high schools in Michigan. Like most good liberals, I thought (and to a certain extent still think) that vouchers were just a way for conservatives to hit teachers' unions and sponsor religious education while ignoring the real problems plaguing public schools. But at age 25, I have to confess that when it comes to professing my faith in supporting against vouchers, I've become a complete agnostic. If you're really serious about 1) helping children stuck right now in failing schools and 2) keeping cities a viable place for middle-class people to raise a family, you have to give programs like vouchers and school-of-choice a fighting chance.

You can argue that these programs will just make the families most needed to support struggling schools opt out for more successful ones. Or that it will drain revenue away exactly where it's needed. But this would ignore the fact that both of these things are already happening. Families are pulling out of cities, and fleeing otherwise healthy neighborhoods with bad schools. This is like a cancer; in turn, it makes the neighborhood sick. Which erodes the tax base of the neighborhood. Which makes the schools worse. Etc.

So here's my supply-side model for why vouchers will work:
Revenue lost to private schools
will be less than or equal to
Revenue gained in property taxes.

In other words, people will be willing to 1) live in the city and 2) pay higher tax rates if they can send their kids to the schools they like. And in neighborhoods like mine, that means Germantown Friends and William Penn, both of which are an established, positive part of the community in a way that Germantown High School is not. Even if they don't wind up sending their kids en masse to the top-flight schools, or even to private schools, the fact that choice is possible reduces that factor in their choice to move to, stay or leave the city.

Or look at it this way: the debate over vouchers and public education is usually framed solely as a problem of education. But as Matt rightly points out, the failure of public education in the cities is a political and economic problem for the city as a whole as much as it as an educational problem for city children.

Let's propose this: rather than messing with public education statewide, let's limit the voucher program to the City of Philadelphia (or the city of Chicago, the city of Washington, etc.). And let's further limit the choice of schools to accredited private schools within city limits. I think this incentive could actually draw people to the city. If you're paying $5,000/year to send your kids to Catholic school in an inner-ring suburb in Montgomery or Delaware county, and Philadelphia offered a program where you could send your kids to any Philadelphia Catholic school for free, you just might consider moving back to the old neighborhood.

Now, I'm not writing off city public schools altogether. Actually, I have a pretty radical idea for reform there, too. But like most of my radical ideas, it's really just repurposed common sense: local, neighborhood-based control over public education.

Split the city into four school districts: the northwest, the northeast, West Philly, and Center City. All of these areas are roughly equal size, and have an equal mix of poor, middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods. They're just streamlined to compete with the area private schools. Big city school districts gain nothing by their consolidation. The school boards just dabble in local politics, bargaining power on concessions and building projects turns into padded graft for well-connected vendors, and families, teachers, administrators, and students feel like they have no control over what happens to them. Smaller schools and local control is what the charter school movement promises, even if it (usually) fails to deliver. Why can't public education in the cities try to co-opt this idea? Is it just that it might cost a few administrators their jobs?

Again, it's about keeping neighborhoods alive and vital. That's what makes cities special: the smaller communities and subcommunities that are carved out of the massive society of the city as a whole. Isn't that at least in part the failure of the postwar suburbs -- that giving names to subdivisions and arbitrarily drawing square boundary lines don't create any sense of self-containment or difference?

Whenever I think of the city, I think of Woody Allen's joke from Annie Hall: "Don't you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here." Communism, Jewishness, homosexuality, pornography -- if you add crime, it's everything that's dangerous and frightening about modernity, metonymically displaced on to the cities associated with them. The suburbs are the twentieth century's bulwark against itself. The twenty-first century is going to make us tear down some of those walls. I think our generation will be ready.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tim, you desperately need a link to your email address. Glad to see things are going (very)