What Can Be Done To Help Our Nation's Inner Suburbs?

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What Can Be Done To Help Our Nation's Inner Suburbs?

MARIETTA, GA—The golf course at James J. Berner Park in this suburb of Atlanta is a little less shabby today, as city workers replace the worn-out putting greens on the back nine. The new greens, which will provide golfers with a smoother, more reliable putting surface, are the first upgrade for the Berner Park golf course since 1994 and the first for the park overall since the tennis courts were repaved in 1996. The renovation is part of a new, much-needed federal-aid project to help keep suburban parks afloat. But here in Marietta, as in so many other inner suburbs across the nation, it is a case of "too little, too late."

An aerial view of Marietta, GA, one of the countless American towns ravaged by suburban decay.

Though Berner Park's drinking fountains work, those in several other Marietta parks do not. Across town, Sprayberry High School is entering its 13th straight month without an afterschool intramural lacrosse program. Worse yet, the local middle school's computer lab has enough Macs for just 70 percent of the students. The remaining 30 percent will simply have to share.

America's inner suburbs are crying out for help, but their pleas are falling on deaf ears.

As Americans continue to flee older, once-respectable inner-suburb neighborhoods in favor of slightly more secluded communities on the outer borders of the suburban rim, more and more of the neighborhoods that are left behind have become wasted hellscapes, notorious for their potholes, shocking occasional inconvenience and, in some cases, slightly less-rigorous college-prep courses.

How could it happen?

"These days, I guess a lot of the affluent prospective homeowners are attracted to the high-prestige 'mansion-style' properties going up in the new subdivision developments outside town," says Fred Greer, 41, owner of a small frozen-yogurt shop in Marietta. "Plus the parking situation just hasn't been the same since the zoning codes went all to hell back in '95."

According to Greer, the pedestrian mall where his shop is located has recently seen a 2 percent rise in youth loitering, with kids as young as 14 scaring away potential customers with laughter, skateboarding, and even public smoking. And, if you ask Greer or any number of other people, the situation will only get worse before it gets better.

"As the infrastructure of our inner suburbs continues to crumble, more and more of the decent, property-owning folks who make up those suburbs will retreat to still-more-distant suburbs, perpetuating the cycle of decay," said Mayor Rick Yablon of Huntington Beach, CA, an L.A. suburb which, since 1995, has seen 26 percent of its residents flee to remote Orange County suburbs. "It's time the government stepped in and did something."

In the Long Island, NY, suburb of Cedarhurst, the opening of a new municipal pool has been held up three weeks due to chlorine-level problems. In Shaker Heights, OH, children are growing up not even knowing how to ride horses, as private summer camps become less and less affordable on the average upper-middle-class breadwinner's yearly salary of $85,000. In Grosse Pointe Woods, MI, some 80 local residences are equipped only with basic cable. Another 45 homes do not have adequate privacy due to a lack of fencing. Shockingly, a full seven do not even have hedges.

"These kids have football and wrestling uniforms that are three, four years old. We barely have enough customers to fill the steakhouses, let alone the art galleries and custom-frame shops," Yablon said. "In the past 10 years, our schools have gone from being factories for getting kids into Harvard, Stanford and Duke to mere places of learning. With my own eyes, I have seen so-called 'punk' kids spit and swear in broad daylight as they walk down main shopping venues. Home table-tennis addiction is rampant. We're dying out here, dying on our well-heeled feet."