Crime nightmare they left behind is following them

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 03, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Forgive my age: I am old enough to remember a Saturday morning in the spring of 1959, when I rode my bike far out Liberty Road, past Seton Apartments and Price's Dairy, past Lochearn and Woodmoor Shopping Center and the construction of some highway they were going to call the Beltway.

Just past the construction area, I reached Washington Avenue and stopped. I'd never been so far out Liberty Road, and suspected no one else had, either. There were some homes, sure, but not many. There were cars on the road, but only sporadically.

I had this sense that it was mostly uncharted territory the rest of the way, and maybe worse. Maybe, like Columbus, I was in danger of falling off the edge of the world if I kept going.

In fact, the great Liberty Road migration was just beginning: thousands of former city residents, most of them white, later to be followed by blacks, all of them looking for a little space for their kids, new schools, green and pleasant yards, the great American middle-class dream.

Forgive us our youthful illusions: Last week they shot four women in a bank on Liberty Road in Randallstown, and two of them are now dead, and on the grass in front of the bank there are memorial bouquets of flowers to break your heart.

"I kept thinking of myself," Laurie Dalton said one day last week. She and her husband, Bud, were placing a wreath on the grass, as an eerie, early-morning fog enveloped the area.

She was a bank teller for 20 years and remembers being trained to handle all emergency situations. But they never told her anything like this, where a couple of animals herd you into a vault and simply open fire.

"Just like I got up for 20 years and put on my clothes and went to work, so did they," she says softly.

"Now you tell me," implores her husband, "what amount of money could be worth this? Why not just take the money and leave? Why? Why? Why?"

The two of them, holding back tears for these people they never even knew, begin to paint a mosaic of their neighborhood, to talk of a friend who was mugged, a nearby house where the police kicked in the front door on a narcotics raid, a sense of dread in the air.

Forgive the naivete of all who came to Liberty Road, but it was never supposed to be like this. Out here, the air was clear and the grass was lush and the streets were safe. That was the dream, wasn't it?

The city was dying, and the conventional wisdom was simple: Out here was the new America. Let the city cut itself to ribbons if that's what it chose to do. Kiss it off. Out here, along Liberty Road, and along all the suburban strips just like it, they were putting the urban blight behind them.

Let's not kid ourselves about this, OK? The nice men in the White House have encouraged this kind of thinking. They've seen the voting figures, and they can count. Suburbia has the numbers now. You lose the cities, it's no big deal. You starve the cities, convince the suburbanites it's somebody else's America. You make them think you're protecting them from the strangers lurking in the shadows, you scare them into voting your way.

Only now there is Liberty Road, with its grim reminder: All lines between city and county are disappearing. We keep letting the cities decay, and suburbia slowly takes on the same deathly pallor.

"We never imagined it would be like this out here," Al Paul is saying now. He and his wife, Shirley, residents here for 15 years, are standing outside the bank, talking of the people who were shot.

"They were our customers," says Paul, who owns the Original Hawaiian Island Snowball Stand. "And I'll tell you, in all the years, we never once had to call the police. This summer, we had to call six or seven times. There was vandalism. Three times, they broke into a soda machine. And this is just our little business."

Some point to low-cost apartments built out here in the last decade, from which have sprung drug trafficking and crime. Others mention the need for more police. Some point to easy access to the Beltway for fleeing criminals.

Forgive my age: I remember that Beltway when it was called a commuter godsend. I remember Liberty Road as a quiet, woodsy country lane. I remember when people moved here and thought they were leaving their problems behind. Forgive everyone their naivete.

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