Prince George's County -- in a spotlight at its crossroads

November 30, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,U.S. Census BureauWashington Bureau of The Sun

LANHAM -- Robert Harrell came to Prince George's County for the very things that have lured Americans to the suburbs for more than a generation: better schools, a bigger yard, a snazzier home, more peaceful streets.

Since moving here 26 years ago, the public relations executive has found all those things, and more. Like Mr. Harrell, most of his neighbors in the fast-growing county are black and middle class. It is a situation he finds appealing.

"We are comfortable around our own," he explains.

The county's growth and upscale development have drawn national attention because they are fueled by blacks -- a feat that is still novel in America. Now, the story is likely to take on larger significance because 12-year County Executive Parris N. Glendening, who oversaw much of that growth, is Maryland's governor-elect, the first from the Washington suburbs in more than a century.

Also, the same election that is sending Mr. Glendening to the State House brought the county its first black executive, attorney Wayne K. Curry, who takes office next week. The new executive will have an opportunity that could be the envy of black mayors who have taken control of declining cities: to lead a predominantly black jurisdiction that is still on the rise economically.

More than a quarter-million blacks have moved to Prince George's County in the past 20 years, transforming this once mostly white, blue-collar, semirural county into what some demographers call the best-educated, best-paid black-majority community in America.

While most county residents enjoy the peace and prosperity that money can buy, troubling pockets of crime, poverty and poor achievement in schools fester, especially in neighborhoods abutting the county's border with the District of Columbia.

Also, the county offers few of the amenities taken for granted in many white communities of similar affluence. Upscale malls and stores, fancy restaurants and even banks have been reluctant to locate in the county. Some say the reluctance is rooted in racism. Others call it a natural response to the school and crime problems that threaten Prince George's County's otherwise glittering success.

"Despite all the reports of prosperity, I feel the ghettoization of Prince George's County," says Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat from Largo. "If we are not vigilant, standards can go down, and we will end up with more high-density overdevelopment that will threaten our quality of life. The black middle class can afford to live anywhere, and consequently, if they feel the school problems are overwhelming, or crime is too high, they can leave."

The district line

Even with unprecedented wealth flowing to Prince George's as vast undeveloped tracts of land give way to stately new homes and sparkling office parks, crime and poverty seem to be deepening in the neighborhoods of low-cost garden apartments and ramshackle shopping strips that straddle the district line.

Bloodied by a near-record 141 homicides last year, the county as of yesterday had been the scene of 117 murders in 1994, and almost 90 percent of them occurred in poorer neighborhoods inside the Capital Beltway. Also, the performance of county students on standardized tests lags behind that of every other school system in the state except Baltimore City.

'Classic scenario'

"P.G. is, unfortunately, two things," says Alvin Thornton, a Howard University political scientist and a longtime county resident. "One is a very dense place, much older and with characteristics not unlike poorer parts of the district in terms of racial makeup and income distribution. "The other is just the opposite. It has higher income, less density, is less black, if you will, and still has a lot of land to be developed. The real issue for the county is to not do what most other urban areas have done, which is to develop the frontier while ignoring the home base. It is really the classic urban development scenario."

During his years as county executive, Mr. Glendening is widely credited with facilitating the county's growth and making it a welcome place for its new residents -- even if some changes came at the insistence of an impatient black electorate. Under Mr. Glendening's stewardship, the county's police force, once notorious for brutality against blacks, shed much of its old reputation. Also, the county government hired an unprecedented number of minorities and aggressively courted minority businesses.

"Parris, I think, had a positive effect," says Mr. Wynn, a sometime political rival. "He was sensitive to the issue of the county's image. Overall, he helped move the county into a more sophisticated mode."

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