NOTIONS: A suburban pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later story

July 31, 2006

Longer ago than I'd like to admit, my parents were expecting their first child (me). And they wanted their little guy to grow up in a nice, safe neighborhood.

Mom and Dad weren't earning much. But they borrowed a down payment from Grandpa, took out a whopping $80-per-month mortgage, and purchased a tiny, newly constructed house on the outskirts of Lafayette.

My parents had grown up in the established parts of Lafayette. They knew well the old homes, old streets and Columbian Park.

But in the late 1950s, with the baby boom burgeoning and post-war America rife with prosperity and promise, the notion of fresh, new and clean drew them to the latest in starter neighborhoods-complete with winding streets, cul-desacs and a shopping center.

In our new suburb, I played for hours in the backyard, ran ahead of Mom to the store, and generally led a Beaver Cleaver life.

Five years later, what had become our family of four (my brother Bryan had arrived) moved to Omaha, Neb.

Omaha had beautiful, established neighborhoods. We went to church in one of those. But my dad's office was on the outskirts of town. So were the best schools. So we moved to a new suburb.

My brother and I played backyard football, rode skateboards and played kickthe-can with our friends on North 86th Street till dusk and beyond.

When I was 10, our family of five (my brother Karl had arrived) moved to Fort Wayne. There were beautiful, established neighborhoods in Fort Wayne. And my dad worked downtown.

But the best schools were in the suburbs. And in the one we chose, you could walk to all of them-from kindergarten through high school. And there were neighborhood clubs where Bryan could swim and dive (his favorite thing).

So my brothers and I played backyard football, and I carried girls' books home from school, and sometimes those girls would T.P. our lawn, and my friends and I would return the favor a night or two later.

Over the years, my parents moved all or parts of our family of six (my sister Josie had arrived) to suburbs on the southwest side of Fort Wayne; the north side of Colorado Springs, Colo.; the west side of Hartford, Conn.; and the foothills of Tucson, Ariz. They're now retired in suburban Zionsville.

And when I got married for the first time, we moved to the suburbs- not the city-of Fort Wayne. And when we had kids, we moved to the suburbs-not the city-of Hartford.

And when we got divorced, my ex-wife and her new husband moved to the suburbs-not the city-of Fort Wayne with our sons.

And when I got married for the second time, my wife and I moved to the suburbs-not the city-of Indianapolis so our sons would have a nice place to visit.

Like my parents before me, it's always been about new and safe, and good schools, and family pools, and big backyards, and people like us all around.

I don't regret that upbringing-most of it, anyway. And I don't begrudge anyone else a similar upbringing.

But there are drawbacks for those of us who've lived this way.

And those of us who've lived this way create drawbacks for society.

And while I figured that out years ago by being exposed to other kinds of people and other kinds of existences through education, work, travel, community service, and the women I've loved, the shortcomings of massive suburban flight are even clearer to me after four years of living downtown.

From a fiscal standpoint alone, we're playing an inane game. Cheapskates that we are, we resist the taxes it would take to modernize schools and hire better teachers; to maintain aging streets, sidewalks and sewers; and to otherwise keep a city up to snuff.

Instead, many who can afford to flee farther and farther away to former farms where the schools are new, the streets freshly paved and the taxes lovably lower.

And while we visit the city because there's cool stuff to do there, we don't have to pay taxes for them. And while we visit our suburban parks and centers because they're clean and convenient, we don't have to pay taxes for them.

And when our suburban communities try to annex us so we can share the cost of these nice things, we fight like the devil.

And when our traffic becomes so jammed that we need hundreds of millions of dollars for new lanes and intersections, we ask everyone else to pay.

And remarkably, because we grew up in a bubble and still live there in our minds, it never occurs to us that these highways will cost far more than what it would have cost to stay in the city and fix it up instead of running away in the first place.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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