Milwaukee's city-suburban wars have been going on for longer than I can remember. The one constant has been a failure of each side to understand the legitimate concerns of the other and to dismiss either the "'burbs" or the "city" with unwarranted caricatures.
A case in point: the recent contretemps between my Purple Wisconsin colleague Alex Runner and Waukesha blogger Nate Sass. Both seem to be decent enough blokes but something about this particular fault line seems to generate more heat than light.
Sass goes first, suggesting that a new arena ought to be built in Waukesha or at least not downtown. These, it seems to me, are at least tenable suggestions; certainly nothing that should earn the author contempt. If you want regional funding for a new building, you need to take into account regional perspectives. Putting aside whether there ought to be public funding, I tend to think that downtown or Menomonee Valley are the best locations. But if you want to ask the suburbs for money, you ought not dismiss the suggestion that the playground be built in the suburbs as beyond the pale.
Sass points out that the BMO Harris Center did not lead to the economic development that was once hoped for. This too strikes me as a legitimate point. The sluggish performance of the Bradley Center neighborhood does not mean that a new arena in that area can't do better, but it would be foolish not to ask why things didn't turn out better.
In my mind, Sass goes off the rails in suggesting that downtown Milwaukee is a wasteland that no one wants to visit. That is demonstrably false. Crime is not a problem in downtown Milwaukee and parking is quite manageable. If he doesn't think so, he should leave Waukesha and head down there this summer.
I agree that Milwaukee is not Manhattan or Chicago. Only a handful of cities in the world are. I also agree that it is not Madison. It makes Madison look like Fargo.
In response to this, Alex loses his last nerve, calling Sass' piece a "hack job." But Sass makes a couple of points that urban advocates should not lose sight of.
The first is that the suburbs are no longer dependent on - and do not live off - the city. To be sure, Brookfield and Mequon came to be because Milwaukee was there first. But so were Grosse Pointe and Southfield a product of Detroit. That they don't need Detroit anymore is evident from a drive the length of Woodward Avenue.
This is more true today than ever. Three years ago, when I founded the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, I put it in downtown Milwaukee for no reason other than my subjective preference to be there. There was absolutely no business reason to do so.
The implication of that point is that the city is not in a position to demand that the suburbs pay for whatever it wants however it wants it. One cannot build a great city by expecting outsiders to fund things that John Lindsay thought were good ideas in 1966. Milwaukee will not rise on the power of government. If you want prosperity, you need to earn it. It won't come by politics.
I appreciate that many people believe this is unfair. It is no less true for that.
The second is that, when public money from the outside is properly spent, it must come with political participation. Sass is correct to point out that the MMSD is a prime example of a "regional" approach that one side has attempted to dominate at the expense of the other. That's one reason it hasn't worked very well.
It is risible for Milwaukee to say that is just wants to be "left alone." That's the last thing it wants. Being left alone - to truly exercise "local control" - would mean ceasing to be a supplicant. The city would have to announce that it no longer wants to receive tax dollars generated outside its borders.
Indeed, conservative that I am, I don't believe that Milwaukee should be "left alone" in this way, although I believe that many of the preferred nostrums of Milwaukee politicians are ill conceived and counterproductive. I am not anti-urban. I am anti-urban "progressivism."
But Milwaukee can't expect to be inveterately hostile to the interests of the larger region - yes, I'm talking freeways, streetcars and taxes - and not expect to reap hostility in turn.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.