September 16, 1992|By RICHARD W. SMITH

For 30 years, I driven north on Dulaney Valley Road and crossed to Eastridge. Behind me has always been the rapidly changing landscape of commercial Towson. Ahead of me has always been the virtually constant landscape of the tract developments of modest residential housing.

To the south, apartment and office towers have spouted, a monster mall has been built and the Towson of 30 years ago has been all but obliterated. Traffic roars.

Once I have made the turn into Eastridge an unchanging landscape stretches ahead for several miles. The trees are larger than in past decades and the Tin Men have made their mark by covering the old fashioned shingles with siding; here and there a porch or bedroom has been added; the streets display few children but many geezers puffing determinedly around the block. But the visual landscape is virtually the same as in 1962: clean, neat, attractive, with few uncut lawns and fewer &r untrimmed bushes.

Eastridge parallels York Road, which runs north and south just a few blocks to the west. That commercial corridor has been a caldron of change. Fast-food shops come and go. Gas stations become car washes and car washes become florist shops. Whole commercial centers are demolished and rebuilt. Super markets come and go. Auto agencies erect new signs, businesses fail, restaurants open and close, advertising signs become a forest. Traffic roars.

Just off York Road to the east, stability reigns. While there are constant zoning changes in the commercial corridor, all attempts to make a zoning change in the residential area are fought to the death. There is a tendency for the commercial corridor to bleed at its edges, grabbing a house here and a home there as it tries to expand eastward from York Road. But in most areas, the homeowners hold firm.

This tendency for home owners to defend turf over time is not limited to Lutherville-Timonium.

The residential areas of Hamilton and Overlea look the same as they did 50 years ago, while their adjacent commercial corridors have become ragged and seedy. The marble steps of the small Highlandtown streets look the same as they did 70 years ago, but Eastern Avenue is a sad shambles of the days when it was ''The Avenue.'' South Baltimore's row houses still have a sturdy look and feel about them after more than a century.

Even when incomes fall and real-estate prices decline, residential areas often remain unchanged. It is the adjacent commercial corridors that are first to go. Merchants and tradesmen need profits and shuttered shops tell more about the well-being of the homeowners than does the appearance of the houses nearby. Homes are top priority. Even in today's prolonged economic downturn, mortgages are paid. Hardware stores are opening while department stores are closing. Strenuous efforts are made to maintain the homestead.

Families may change. Single-person households abound. Young people band together to get a house. Adult children leave home -- and then return when a job or a marriage fails. A house is a home; is a haven; is an emotional resting place. Home is where they have to take you in. There are few sadder words than ''homeless.''

Little wonder that men and women make every effort to maintain their homes when all about them is in chaos. There is emotional stability in seemingly unchanging neighborhoods. The home owners in Canton are not being blindly obstructive in fighting the changes along their waterfront. They know that change, even in the form of fancy condos, threatens the way of life that has become so comfortable to them.

Commercial properties are part enterprise, part tax deduction, part balance sheet and part capital to be sold, traded or borrowed against. But a house is not something to be taken so lightly.

A house is a bulwark against the world. It contains Grandma's china, Dad's crooked closet shelving, Sister's first doll and Brother's discarded fielder's glove. It is the creaking floorboard in the hall and the furnace that surely must be replaced soon. It is a repository of hopes and fears and, while it lasts, it is a joy forever. And that is why Eastridge Road provides a comforting unchanging landscape to the homeward-bound traveler.

Richard W. Smith writes from Timonium.


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