Sense of community hard to find in suburban areas #F Two-income families have little time to get to know neighbors

October 08, 1995|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

The Melton family didn't move very far to their new home in Clarksville, but they didn't expect their neighbors to treat them like aliens.

Four months after they moved to Clarksville from Columbia, however, the Meltons still find it tough to forge close links with their new neighbors -- a plight social scientists say is far from uncommon in fast-growing suburbs such as Howard.

"People are a bit standoffish when you try to be friendly with them," says Louis Melton, who moved to Clarksville in June with his wife, Janet, and two children. "It's strange that people are that way."

The days of the Welcome Wagon and a covered dish from the family next door are passing. New residents to Howard County now have to work hard to put down roots in neighborhoods dominated by two-income families with limited time for socializing.

"When there are a lot of families with two-income earners, any sense of community with neighbors will be jeopardized," says Dr. William W. Falk, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Maryland at College Park. "There are but so many hours in the day. Where's the time to be creating a sense of community with your neighbors?"

It's a situation he calls typical of communities that, like Howard, find themselves coping with dramatic population spurts and a high level of residential turnover.

In the first eight months of this year, new births and relocations increased Howard's population by more than 3,000 residents to a total of 220,271, according to data from the county's Department of Planning and Zoning. That's an average of 375 additional residents each month.

In addition, more than 17,000 people moved to the county from 1992 to 1993, while almost 15,000 moved out, according to the most recent statistics available from the Maryland Office of Planning. And of the new residents, about 5,800 were from out of state.

Meanwhile, of the 51,000 families in the county, almost 40,000 had at least two wage-earners, according to the 1990 census.

"There's not an easy way to get linked in and foster an identity with such places," says Dr. Falk. "It's very difficult to integrate all those people in any social structure."

For some, making connections comes easily through such institutions as school and church. In Columbia, new residents often meet people through the planned community's extensive network of recreational facilities.

For those without such connections, however, the county has few programs to help them feel at home -- and those organizations that exist have limitations, coordinators say.

In Columbia, for example, the Welcome Center in the Columbia Association building focuses strictly on services and resources available in the planned community -- ignoring 15 of 18 ZIP codes in the county.

For the 50 or so new and prospective residents who drop in each week to get maps, information on facilities and other resources, the Welcome Center serves a useful function, says Barbara Kellner, the center's coordinator.

But she suspects that few of the young professional families that move to the area use the Welcome Center as a resource. "They are most likely busy and content with what they're doing," Ms. Kellner says.

Welcome Wagon Inc., meanwhile, has just one representative in Howard County despite the national marketing company's goal of one representative for every 20,000 people. County representative Carolyn Capizola says she can only focus on the new residents of Columbia -- and only the eastern part of Columbia at that.

"Unfortunately, there are people who do get missed," says Ms. Capizola, an Oakland Mills village resident who greets newcomers with household gifts introducing them to local businesses. "I'm not able to catch up with everybody."

Even with such services, many new residents scramble to find ways to meet other families. In Clarksville, for example, Janet Melton found part-time jobs at an adult day-care center and a garden center just so she could meet people.

"All in all, we're very happy in Maryland," she says, "but I do feel I have to work outside the home and make friends there."

That can be especially tough for those who move from out of state, says Mary Patricia Andreas, whose family moved to Ellicott City in June from Virginia Beach, Va.

A stay-at-home mother -- whose husband, Roger, an nTC environmental engineer, spends little time in his office -- she was concerned that their social life could suffer without the possibility of meeting many people through work.

With that in mind, the family sought out a townhouse community that was "conducive to bumping into people," she says. Its population of young professionals, many single or just beginning their families, offers a promising crop of potential friends, she says.

"It's up to us to build any friendships we may have," says Mrs. Andreas.

Others say that making meaningful connections in Howard County can be a challenge because of cultural differences between out-of-staters and their new communities.

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