Fixing problems before it's too late leaves some hope

July 20, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Sid Mandel's Deli is gone now, the french fries and gravy momentarily replaced by dust and rubble that workmen are converting to a hair salon. The old Food Fair has become a Super Pride with a poster out front that says it honors a government food program. Read's Drug Store is now a Rite-Aid with a security camera inside the front door.

This is Woodmoor Shopping Center on Liberty Road in northwest Baltimore County after its much-trumpeted and long-overdue face lift designed to change a whole community's perception of itself.

Once, maybe 40 years ago, Woodmoor seemed distant as the horizon to Baltimoreans making their first trek beyond city limits. It's just a dozen stores in a row, a pipsqueak compared to modern Taj Mahal malls. But there was a time when it seemed big and proud and a symbol of some endlessly glowing suburban future.

But time beat it down, as time does.

Once, after dark, the center's parking lot sometimes became a makeshift touch-football field for teen-agers still feeling frisky after a late-night corned beef sandwich at Sid's Deli. But the parking lot became pot-holed, and the big Woodmoor sign became a worn-down and bashed-about eyesore, and now some shop people say the kids on the parking lot after dark are doing a little drug dealing.

Once, Woodmoor seemed sunlit and spotless. In recent years, though, came cracked sidewalks and trash blowing about, and store owners vacating, and nearby residents looking for other places to shop.

It seemed, in its miniaturized way, a vision of the city itself: The commercial areas decay, then the neighborhoods follow.

Except, around Woodmoor, it hasn't happened. The streets behind the shopping center are still lovely, the lawns beautiful, the homes well-kept, the families middle-class and hard-working.

At Woodmoor Elementary's playground, a few blocks away, there are a dozen boys and girls on a hot summer day cooling themselves beneath the branches of a big tree, figuring out the stuff 12-year-olds do. Nearby, teen-agers are playing pickup basketball. Here and there, on Marston and Brompton and Yataruba, neighborhood ladies tend their gardens. It's as charming a series of snapshots as any community's.

But the shopping center had become a trouble zone, and here's where county officials showed vision that the city lacked years ago, when its own commercial areas were decaying. They understood that Woodmoor was the picture of an entire community which thousands saw every day as they traversed Liberty Road, and that such a picture translated itself in unhealthy ways.

So the county and the owners of Woodmoor invested $1 million in a face lift: new sign, newly smoothed parking lot, new storefronts. And, not uncoincidentally, some new customers and new state of community mind.

The make-over was unveiled a couple weeks ago. It's part of a series of similar efforts, called Streetscape, which will include Catonsville next spring and Reisterstown and Towson later in the decade.

The county handles the physical work, the engineering and architecture, and property owners agree to invest 25 percent of what the county spends in the process.

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III keeps saying he's concerned about aging neighborhoods. Years ago, the city didn't get a grip on such problems until they were crippling. The county doesn't want to repeat such mistakes.

Is everything fixed with a face lift? Not quite. There are still pockets of crime along the Liberty Road corridor. On Dayta Drive behind Woodmoor, there's a house with bars over its windows that seems unsettling on such a peaceful street. The police say that, yes, they know about the drug dealing in the shopping center after dark, and they're taking license plate numbers.

A spruced-up shopping center doesn't quite fix this, but maybe it helps. We become what we behold. When our surroundings look nice, we feel better about ourselves. Sid Mandel's Deli is gone, but there's a Chinese carryout now where the food's supposed to be tasty. There's a security camera inside the Rite-Aid, but what neighborhood doesn't take its precautions?

There are new names and faces now, but it's a place that's fixed itself up before it was too late. A whole neighborhood, which identifies with this center, heaves a sigh of relief.

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