Norfolk, Virginia -- Can a traditionally fractious and argumentative bunch of cities get their act together to prepare for the 21st-century economy? A key test is shaping up here in the Hampton Roads region -- a constellation of cities such as Norfolk, Hampton, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and Chesapeake.
Hampton Roads is a region of blue-collar folk, the kind of Americans who manned the shipyards and Naval commands of World War II and the Cold War. Now they're worrying about their future as the U.S. military downsizes and such high-tech citistate regions as Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham outpace them economically.
But here's the problem: How do you cooperate if divisiveness is the name of your politics? Suburban, spread-out Virginia Beach, for example, never forgets it owes its very existence to a timely move to escape Norfolk's annexation claws.
Norfolk, nursing wounds of urban decline and a major public-housing burden, resorts to one of its few trump cards -- control of the region's best fresh-water supply -- to try to wring concessions from its neighboring cities. Indeed, a fresh barrage of nasty charges and countercharges over water rights has erupted this spring.
Carl Abbott knew his subject well when, in his 1981 book, "The New Urban America," he described these Tidewater cities as "partners in a failing marriage, bickering and sparring at every turn."
Yet quite amazingly, one finds that a very active effort to achieve regional cohesion is flourishing this year in Hampton Roads. Little noted by the local press, the mayors and supervisors of 15 municipalities, from Virginia Beach to Williamsburg, have been meeting monthly, pulling industrial leaders and university presidents into their meetings.
The key, says Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, is to determine "what is our sun," the one issue the cities can focus on as key to their collective future. Consensus is gradually turning to the port as that central issue.
Nor will it do, says Mr. Fraim, for mayors alone, or mayors working with business leaders, to analyze the region's strategic future. Ordinary citizens need to be included, developing a spirit of "regional citizenship." He and Hampton's mayor, James Eason, are both emphasizing the need to draw neighborhoods into the regional discussions.
"Most issues I deal with as mayor," says Mr. Fraim, "are either neighborhood-based or they are regional. Our goal really ought to be to make our borders meaningless."
The events in Hampton Roads are running concurrently with a major effort by a statewide Urban Partnership, formed by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce at the instigation of the mayors of Richmond, Norfolk and Roanoke. The idea is to help the state's urban regions spend less time focused on the artificial municipal boundaries that divide them and instead to focus on how -- with private-sector help -- they can position their regions for national and international economic competition.
Topics covered by the Urban Partnership have included the overall economic performance of Virginia's regions, work-force preparedness, combating urban poverty and the impacts of sprawl development. A Virginia-wide "Urban Summit," to debate metropolitan-wide strategies for all of Virginia's city centers, is scheduled June 15 in Norfolk.
For a state in which cities have perennially been shouldered aside -- legally they're not even parts of the counties which surround them -- all this represents a dramatic new turn.
The mayors and business leaders involved are explicitly focusing on building more cohesive citistate regions -- "borderless" in terms of enhanced cooperation, though everyone hastens to explain this doesn't mean mergers or consolidated governments.
"It's immoral not to cooperate; we're a family of cities" and must develop a "shared vision," says Mayor Fraim.
And while each organization or official seems to have his own definition of the process, there's remarkably broad discussion of growing social inequities, education and worker readiness, land use and the fate of neighborhoods.
In Hampton, Mayor Eason reports he's created a "neighborhood college" to help citizens think regionally while also setting priorities for their own neighborhoods.
Leslie Fenlon, a retired Naval commander who lives in Virginia Beach, recently organized a first-ever "grass-roots regionalism" conference for neighborhood groups from all the Hampton Roads cities. The goal is to exchange problem-solving ideas and to include neighborhoods in the region-wide debate on strategies to strengthen the Hampton Roads economy.
Will all this lead to strong and permanent reform coalitions? Will the result be stronger regional planning, metropolitan regions that learn to stop quarreling and start strategizing? Will the public start to understand that participating neighborhoods are important to successful citistates?
Obviously, it's much too early to tell. But the Hampton Roads effort does mirror a push for regionalism -- a demand for strategic thinking, for better area-wide land use and enhanced roles for neighborhoods -- that's welling up across America. It's a reform impulse almost invisible in the whirl of 1995's anti-government politics. But from Philadelphia to Milwaukee, Miami to Denver, I've found it thriving.
And if you discover it in rock-ribbed and traditional Virginia, you .. have to believe it can happen anywhere.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.