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Lecture Notes: payback time for the 'burbs

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Minnesota state representative Myron Orfield is America's leading proponent of "metropolitics," a strategy to persuade suburbs to take more responsibility for urban decay. The 32-year-old, second-term Democratic lawmaker has pursued measures for fair housing, property-tax sharing, and urban reinvestment by convincing blue-collar, inner-ring suburbs to align themselves with Minneapolis and Saint Paul rather than the region's affluent, outer-ring suburbs.

With a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Orfield is now laying the groundwork for the same kind of community-building coalition here in metropolitan Chicago.

Orfield, a University of Chicago Law School graduate, has created an array of charts, graphs, and maps that show that urban decay is seeping outward. For example, 60 Chicago suburbs have a lower per capita tax base than the city itself. While the map locates one ring of decline to the north, there are five rings to the west and seven to the south. Orfield has also found that only one-third of the population of northeastern Illinois live in exclusive-taxing districts like Naperville and Schaumburg, which, he charges, "enjoy all the benefits of the regional economy but virtually none of the responsibilities."

Orfield's critique of affluent suburbanites draining the wealth of urban regions has won both praise and scorn.

"Myron deserves high marks for raising consciousness on important issues and lousy marks for his political work," says Curtis Johnson, former chief of staff to Minnesota governor Arne Carlson. "From the way he describes the Twin Cities, you'd think the Hatfields and McCoys were feuding in the public square." But David Rusk, the ex-mayor of Albuquerque, argues in Cities Without Suburbs that metropolitan areas will sink if cities are treated like "catch basins" for "poor minorities." Rusk calls Orfield "the outstanding voice among elected officials nationally" for building regional coalitions to deal with urban problems.

Orfield believes such Cook County suburbs as Justice, Cicero, Berwyn, Oak Lawn, and Harvey unwittingly undermine their own interests by supporting an agenda crafted by Du Page County. Outlying suburbs gobble up land at the expense of older, landlocked municipalities that don't have room to grow and therefore can't generate new taxes needed to maintain everything from schools to sewer systems.

Orfield wants to entice suburban officials and nonprofit groups to accept the challenge of metropolitics and begin "playing to the millions of pieces of self-interest that need a regional solution." He'll present the findings of his Chicago-area study at 6:30 Thursday, October 5, at the Chicago Bar Association, 321 S. Plymouth (a reception will be held at 5:30). Admission is $10, $5 for seniors and students. For reservations call Jan Metzger at 278-4800, ext. 127.

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