There, and Back Again

May 21, 1994|By ANDREW RATNER

We could fix our cities in no time with these few words: Gas -- $5 a gallon.

Cheap and easy transportation out is what killed urban America, and, although the phenomenon is newer and less recognized, it is now killing parts of suburban America.

Sociologists have determined that people don't mind traveling about a half-hour to work. In the 1800s, a half-hour by buggy from downtown Baltimore would get you to the northern fringe, North Avenue. After World War II, you could travel by motor car to Baltimore County from the city in that time span. And with the expansion of the interstate system, people could live in the ''outer counties'' they wouldn't have considered decades before.

In fact, Maryland's ''boom'' bedroom counties of the 1980s and '90s -- Howard, Carroll and Harford among them -- all had substantially less population in 1950 than Allegany County in western Maryland's Appalachia region, long since mired in economic decline.

Suburbanites didn't ''escape'' from the cities. Escape conjures up flight that is hard. Leaving the cities was made easy. As job opportunities moved outward, leaving the original suburbs became easier, too.

Baltimore County; Prince George's outside of Washington; Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, and Somerville, Massachusetts, outside Boston -- are among the suburbs that have seen decline as the middle class hopscotched past them to settle farther out in the countryside or in emerging ''edge cities.''

The fall of the cities and the growth of the suburbs is often seen in terms of white versus black. Racism is a persistent cancer, but the continued emigration from the cities is more an issue of livability. The black middle class, as well as whites, left inner-Beltway communities of Prince George's County, and the eastern Baltimore County suburbs that have withered under increased crime and unemployment are predominantly white, not black.

One problem in these post-World War II settlements is that the housing stocks are too old to be thought desirable, too young to be considered quaint or historic. Those ''dream homes'' of the '50s now have too few bathrooms and bedrooms for the families of '90s, even though today's households are smaller. We also now have an entire generation that grew up in the suburbs, so leaving the city isn't a moral dilemma; these folks never lived in the city.

Baltimore wants to rebuild ''village by village,'' with the aid of federal empowerment grants and other community rebuilding strategies in West Baltimore and around Johns Hopkins Hospital. Prince George's County has a program of tax incentives, block grants and architectural design guidance and has seen some reversal of the population decay in its most urban areas. And, Baltimore County just dispatched its planning director to tackle full-time the important, if ill-defined, task of retaining the middle class. The county also hopes to turn an area off Interstate 95 named Honeygo into a self-contained community with housing, jobs, recreation and shopping that can compete for residential growth with the outer counties.

The thought that Baltimore County, the post-war paradise that filmmaker Barry Levinson depicted in ''Avalon,'' would have to worry about people wanting to live there would have seemed incongruous to Baltimoreans a generation or two ago. Yet congestion has gotten so bad in some Baltimore County communities such as Perry Hall, where front yards nearly abut the road, that the mailboxes are turned sideways lest passing cars shear them off.

A dozen miles north, one wonders about a similar fate some day for a now-infant growth area, Harford County's ''development envelope,'' where the new limited-access highway continues to sprout shopping centers, gas stations and traffic signals. Will the outer counties suffer the same spiral of congestion, obsolescence and blight as the inner suburbs?

Minus a crystal ball, my guess is yes, but for reasons different from those that caused the societal shifts of the last half-century. As the baby boomers age, and their need for space and their ability to drive diminishes, they will gravitate back toward the population centers.

Also, the electronic superhighway will affect migration patterns in ways unseen before. The maxim of the half-hour commute shaping our lives might become irrelevant in a world where computer links put people milliseconds from work -- wherever they live.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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