Maryland has weathered immense population changes during its three and a half centuries: From 1800, when it was the geographic center of U.S. population; to 1850, when Baltimore was the nation's second largest city behind New York with 170,000 residents, to the mid-part of this century when Maryland's population doubled.
But never has this state witnessed such an internal population upheaval.
Maryland's overall growth this decade has hardly been dramatic -- barely 5 percent, exactly the rate of the nation as a whole. Yet the movement of people from city to county and county to county has been striking.
Baltimore City lost 80,000 residents from 1980 to 1992, largely a result of the black middle class moving west into Baltimore County, and whites leapfrogging northeast into Harford County. (Especially alarming is that the outmigration is growing, from a loss of 2,000 residents in 1991 to 12,000 in 1994.)
Baltimore County lost 30,000 of its own to Harford and Carroll counties in that span. Prince George's County, suffering from some of the same urban ills as Baltimore, lost 22,000 people to Anne Arundel County. And, as Anne Arundel urbanized, it lost families to Howard and Carroll. If not for foreign immigration, Montgomery County would have lost more population than it gained -- to Frederick, Howard and Anne Arundel.
The price of this disposable homesteading is immense in terms of environmental impact and infrastructure cost. A lot of empty housing has been left in the wake of these movable families. Baltimore City alone had a 30 percent jump in boarded-up housing the past four years. Meanwhile, the state allocated more for school construction in the suburbs last year than it has since the early 1970s and it barely made a dent in the demand.
Maryland's population churn is a quality-of-life issue throughout the metropolitan region and beyond. We'd like to think otherwise, but our political leaders may have no more power to affect these seismic shifts in the landscape than a boy with his finger in the dike. Most disturbing is that unlike great population changes in the past driven by positive missions -- filling jobs created by the Industrial Revolution or to support the war effort -- this transformation seems more negative, more escapist. As Maryland approaches the 21st century, a troubling question looms: What kind of communities can be sustained with roots of clay?