City Charm


September 16, 1992|By RENE PARENT

I've lived in Baltimore city since 1971. I've worked in Baltimore County, also since 1971. This makes me an expert on the differences between city and county.

In 1971, I was a young guy fresh out of college and ready to make my way in the world. I took an apartment in town mainly to be near my girlfriend. I've had plenty of opportunities to get out since then, but for some reason I'm still living within city limits.

I'm not in the same apartment, of course. Now I live in my own house, in a city neighborhood that has most of the amenities one would expect in a nice area of Carroll or Harford County, at only about twice the cost. (Double the property taxes, plus private-school tuition, and maybe a few hundred bucks more per year in auto insurance).

I don't claim to be some radical or social reformer committed to the urban lifestyle. I dislike street crime, litter and poor service as much as the next middle-class guy. And I'm not here, as so many are, because it's the only place in a three-state area where you can find an apartment for less than $600 a month. So why am I still in the city?

My co-workers are quick to tell me of the wonders of their mini-estates in Carroll and Harford counties or, paradise of tax paradises, Pennsylvania. They have lawns so big they need tractors to cut them. Tame deer graze in their lettuce patches. Their public schools have a computer and an individual tutor for every student. And aside from people riding around in pickup trucks, there are no socially undesirable behaviors.

I express my admiration. Then, slyly, they ask where I live. ''The city,'' I confess. ''But my neighborhood is really more suburban than urban.''

I've seen some of these county houses for myself, at parties and whatnot. Most remarkable are the presence of air conditioning, the freshness of the paint, and a near total lack of green wallpaper. Generally in a city house it would take years of reconstruction to obtain these conditions.

When county folk talk about ''fixing up'' their houses, they mean adding a new closet in the lower-level bedroom, or perhaps wrapping another 3,000 square feet of redwood deck around the south side of the house. What we city folk mean is scraping six layers of glued-down linoleum from the living-room floor, replacing a dozen termite-eaten tongue-in-groove boards, and filling the entire house with dust from a floor sander so that after it's all done you can see 12 inches of Georgia pine around the edges of your fake oriental carpet.

There must be something in the city air or maybe the water, a secret compulsion to live near Chinese restaurants, an unspoken need to be within 10 minutes of the Baltimore Museum of Art, an unreasonable fear of wall-to-wall carpeting, a subtle brainwashing that paralyzes the city person. Whatever the reason, I'm still here, in Baltimore.

Odder still, I'm not the only one! There are others making good money and inexplicably choosing to live in the city. My neighborhood is full of them. Every spring, during home selling season, they drive out to Lutherville and Timonium, sniff around a bit and talk about moving to the county. By midsummer, they're so enervated by the heat and the lack of air conditioning that it's easier just to borrow a few grand more on the homeowner credit line for another year of Billy's private school.

I've done it myself. Toured county streets with names like Ruxway Court. Inspected immaculate split-levels with cream walls and thick mauve carpeting. Been impressed with what nice, neat houses are available in my price range. No rotten wood shingles. No wavy floors. No cracked plaster. No knob-and-post wiring. If I lived in one of these, my most onerous chore would be to mow the lawn.

I'll do something about it one of these days. I really will. Look around in Lutherville, maybe. Or Ellicott City. If only it weren't so damn hot. If only Ellicott City weren't so far from the museum. If only I weren't right in the middle of fixing the plaster in the upstairs hall. Maybe next year.

Mr. Parent is a free lance.


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