Sunday, May 6, 2012

Regionalism. Localism. Values.

interpretation of transit courtesy of me

There’ve been some things going down in Ann Arbor lately, some wild controversy that has struck concerning, of course, public transit.

But wait! you say. Ann Arbor is a bastion of enlightened prosperity within the poor, misled and economically suffering region of southeast Michigan.  Surely nothing so widely applauded in liberal circles as improvements to the public transit system could cause much more than a murmur. Unfortunately, you are wrong. You are wrong in part because Ann Arbor is home to a group of people known (by me) as the RAGING LOCALISTS (sounds kind of like locusts, and with a similar swarm-like quality).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I, like any self-respecting sunny young liberal, am on board with the local movement. I’d like my food to come from somewhere I can bike to, thank you, and I’d like to be able to walk around my neighborhood and get my needs filled in a few square blocks. I think that strong communities with a degree of self-sufficiency are essential for improving the state of our cities and the policies of our country.

But let’s not forget that we are still part of a region, and the decisions we make affect other people, too.

Our region
To understand what I’m saying, it’s important that we know some things about Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor is a small city of around 113,000, located about thirty miles from the border of Detroit, Michigan’s largest city. In between the two lie sprawling suburbs, farmland that has been encroached upon to the point of barely existing, and long stretches of freeway. The metropolitan Detroit area, of course, is not in the best shape. It has been declining economically since shortly after World War II, was hit hard in 2008, and had a March 2012 unemployment rate of 9.4% (compared to the national rate of 8.2%).

Ann Arbor, however, with the University of Michigan buoying its economy, kept it at 5.6%. It is home to the most functional public transit system in this part of the state, an enviable public school system, low crime rate, and a wide range of cultural and recreational activities available. To the Raging Localists, ideas like regional public transit are simply a scam for the other municipalities, the ones that haven’t got it quite together, to take advantage of Ann Arbor’s hard-earned prosperity. Such free-loaders! Can’t they see that we’ve got as damn near a utopia as anyone in the Midwest can manage?

Utopia why?
It would be enlightening for some of these Raging Localists to move east of US-23. Last summer I lived about five miles outside Ann Arbor’s limits, in neighboring Ypsilanti. Yes, folks, get in your cars (which you have) and drive a little ways down Ellsworth, until it becomes Michigan Ave. You’ll see the house where I lived last summer, and a few blocks down the party store where there was a shooting shortly after I’d moved in. At the time, I was stunned by the enormous difference between gritty Ypsi and my cushy college home. How could there be such an incredibly small distance between them? 

Ann Arbor, like many economically thriving areas, has ways of keeping the most economically useful within its borders and everyone else out. There used to be a sizeable black community in Ann Arbor, in the area we now know as Kerrytown. It is now almost entirely gone. As one former resident told me, the price of housing became too high, and people moved to Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti, bless its soul, does not have the same economic resources as Ann Arbor, and now has a wildly disproportionate share of economic need. Ann Arbor makes some effort to even the burden, but its Housing Commission still maintains a mere 355 units of low rent housing in the city, the waitlist for which has been closed since 2006. We’ve been gentrifying out the less wealthy for half a century, and now we believe that regional public transit is exploitation of our resources? I don’t buy it. 

The thing is, people, Ann Arbor is not awesome solely because you made it so. I don’t deny that a lot of committed people have dedicated enormous amounts of time and energy to maintain and improve their communities. But we in Ann Arbor have privileges and historical momentum that we cannot ignore and cannot escape. The only thing we can do is acknowledge that there is a responsibility, a responsibility to share resources and economic burdens. 

Pick your values
I can’t say to what extent the good of the region will affect the good of Ann Arbor. It’s my intuition that they are deeply connected, and that an economic and social bubble can only fortify itself against the rest of the world for so long. It has been suggested by many public transit advocates that increasing the quality of public transit in the area around Ann Arbor will have economic benefits for the city itself. But this isn’t the reason that I think we should care about people outside the city limits, and care about their ability to access transportation. I simply believe that caring about people who live in other cities is important. And I believe that those benefitting from privilege have a responsibility to examine it. And I believe that it is unethical and elitist to build up a fortress of happiness while letting everything around decay.

But that’s just what I believe. Raging Localists, I’m assuming your values are different.