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Jewish World Review May 7, 2003 / 5 Iyar, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

10 minutes with a big-city Dem mayor who loathes budget deficits, the federal highway program, taxpayer-funded sports stadiums and the meddling (and aid money) of Washington | John Norquist, the mayor of Milwaukee since 1988, is a different kind of big-city Democrat. He loves Milton Friedman, school vouchers and the urban lifestyle as much as he loathes budget deficits, the federal highway program, taxpayer-funded sports stadiums and the meddling (and aid money) of Washington.

Norquist, 53, has made a national name for himself as a "New Urbanist" who knows what it takes to reinvigorate a city from the streetscape up and run its government smartly, cheaply and efficiently.

His 1998 book "The Wealth of Cities" argued that cities can become thriving, safe and livable places again if they take their futures into their own hands and allow people and markets to work in organic and natural ways. I talked to him this week from his offices in Milwaukee, a city of 574,000 in a county of 954,000.

Q: Are you still as much of an optimist about the future of big cities as you were when you wrote your book five years ago?

A: I'm more optimistic. The marketplace for urban living has become much stronger. You can see it in Milwaukee and Chicago. There's been a big boom in downtown and near-downtown housing.

In Milwaukee it's been almost entirely capitalized by the private sector. In fact, one of the reasons we're having the boom is because we got out of the capitalizing of housing.

People who had negative attitudes about the city and had their hand out saying they had to be subsidized to build in the city are no longer the developers we're dealing with. There were a handful of those. Now there (are) dozens of developers scouring the landscape looking for lots to put up buildings or rehabbing old buildings.

So urban life has lots of advantages over life in sprawl. If you want a big yard with a three-car garage and you want to spend your weekends mowing grass, the suburbs are a great place. But if you want to enjoy the complexity of human life and have walkable destinations, the cities have got a lot to offer.

If the government dominates the housing market, or over-regulates it in the wrong way, you can end up with a lot of empty lots and empty buildings and no housing market.

Q: What cities would you name as the most shining success stories of the last five or 10 years?

A: Chicago's been a big success, particularly in terms of becoming a place where people want to live. The residential population of Chicago has gone way up in its downtown. Milwaukee has paralleled that. We're a smaller city, but we've had about 4,000 or 5,000 new people living in downtown.

Q: Wow. In lofts, condos, apartments?

A: Yes, all those things. All the urban forms.

Q: And those people have been brought in by market-oriented developers?

A: Yeah, they like having buildings in interesting settings. The layout of the downtown was planned more than 100 years ago, so it's not based on giant ugly arterials and cul-de-sacs, and the lifestyle is so dumbed-down and one-dimensional in the suburbs that people have opened their eyes.

The urban form which was repulsive to a lot of Americans 25 or 30 years ago is really looking good now, except in a few places like Detroit, which keeps throwing the bomb on fourth down - you know, casinos, new conventions centers, stadia, one thing after another. Everything's always got to be a big government project with Ford Motor Company involved and all that, and they never let the little stuff happen.

Q: The usual top-down, mega-projects by the experts.

A: They need to read Jane Jacob's book ("The Death and Life of Great American Cities"). They need to understand that you need to have markets and let the complexity of the city work in your behalf.

Q: How and why did our cities fall into such a sad state in the last 50 years?

A: Well, some of it was done to them. The gross over-investment in highways by the federal government, for example. The states would have figured out how to hook up their four-lane or six-lane highways. Ohio and Pennsylvania would have connected the Ohio Turnpike and the Pennsylvania Turnpike without the federal government getting involved. ... The United States has way overbuilt its road network. It's gross. There was really no need to build four-lane highways in Wyoming. We never should have built all of these things in the middle of cities. They don't add value. They're expensive to maintain. They wear our after about 30 to 35 years and they cost a fortune to replace.

Q: You are a Democrat still, aren't you?

A: Yeah, I am. I'm a Democrat because my party is dedicated to ending poverty and the Republicans, despite all their efforts to be compassionate, seem to be dedicated (laughs) to making sure rich people are real rich. They want to solve that problem of where can you get the good domestic help for your house.

But I disagree with the Democratic Party's religious devotion to the public school monopoly, so I'm not considered a Democrat in good standing by the public employee groups and all that.

Q: But you're a big fan of free markets and choice and competition.

A: I'm a big fan of Milton Freidman and Jane Jacobs and a lot of good people like that.

Q: How have you used markets, choice and competition to improve the health of your city?

A: You do it when you reduce expenditures and you hold expenditures below the rate of inflation, which I think should be the obligation of any government as a general rule. Unless there is an extraordinary reason - a war or something like that - you shouldn't spend above the rate of inflation. I think that's helped to create room for the private economy in Milwaukee to grow.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald