When poverty comes to older suburbsLansdowne resident...


November 11, 1995

When poverty comes to older suburbs

Lansdowne resident Michael D. Nauton's commentary ("'Baltimore Unbound' is way out of bounds," Opinion*Commentary, Nov. 1) would have benefited from some good advice from House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "The tragedy," the speaker said last month, "is that people will lock up and take positions before they read the book."

Mr. Nauton's comments seem entirely based on an excellent article by Sun reporter C. Fraser Smith (Oct. 22) rather than reading "Baltimore Unbound" itself. Had Mr. Nauton actually read my book, he would have found the two following statements:

"With poverty increasing as well in older, inner suburbs such as Essex, Dundalk and Lansdowne-Baltimore Highlands, Baltimore County's fair share of poverty index edged upward.

"Without strong policies and programs promoting mixed-income development throughout the entire Baltimore area, the decline of many hand-me-down neighborhoods in older, inner suburbs is as inevitable as the continued ghettoization of inner-city Baltimore.

"Targeting 'fair-share' low- and moderate-income housing on new construction, primarily in the outlying counties, will relieve the adverse market pressures on older suburbs. Many Essex and Dundalk neighborhoods already have more than their fair share of the metro area's poor households. If they are to be stabilize, they desperately need the very policies and programs I have recommended."

To Essex and Dundalk would clearly be added the Lansdowne-Baltimore Highlands area, as the first quotation indicated. Mr. Nauton describes the Lansdowne area as a working class community with a strong sense of community responsibility and pride. I applaud that. But let me offer some facts regarding population trends slowly changing his area.

The Census Bureau groups four census tracts into an area called Lansdowne-Baltimore Highlands (a linkage Lansdowne residents might object to).

In that area, from 1970-90, the number of poor persons almost doubled from 826 to 1,463, and the overall poverty rate increased from 4.9 percent to 9.4 percent. In two neighborhoods the poverty rate climbed to 11.9 percent and 13.0 percent -- already well above any regional ''fair share'' calculation. Since the last census the area's poverty level has undoubtedly become worse.

A generation ago Lansdowne-Baltimore Highland residents had average incomes slightly higher than the regional average. Twenty years later the average income had slumped to 25 percent below the regional average. Mr. Nauton disparages characterizations of areas like Lansdowne-Baltimore Highlands as ''vulnerable to downmarket pressures (lower rents and housing values) due to the arrival of less affluent families moving from the city.'' However, that's exactly what's happening.

Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger is committed to halting the decline of the county's older, inner-ring suburbs like Essex, Dundalk and Lansdowne-Baltimore Highlands. He is stepping up housing code enforcement, repairing neighborhood streets and county facilities and boosting the quality of police protection, garbage pickup and other county services. That's certainly a big step in the right direction.

But Baltimore County could learn from the sad example of Cleveland's older, blue collar suburbs, or Chicago's, or Detroit's or Atlanta's that a strong ''inside'' game isn't enough. To stabilize a Lansdowne-Baltimore Highlands, Baltimore County needs an ''outside'' game as well.

In short, Baltimore County needs Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford counties to absorb a modest fair share of the region's poor households into their own prosperous, middle class communities. Six or seven poor residents out of every hundred new residents is all that's needed -- and that will transform the lives of most of those poor children.

Until reading Mr. Nauton's column, I had thought that being branded a Communist had thankfully passed from the American scene with McCarthyism 40 years ago. But applying Mr. Nauton's terms of reference, which of the following would Lenin or Stalin have found more familiar?:

Neighborhoods like Montgomery County's Potomac, where local government requires private developers to build housing affordable to the community's teachers, police officers and food store managers as well as mansions for wealthy lawyers, doctors and stock brokers -- and one out of 20 townhouses or apartments is acquired for poor families seeking to raise children in an environment of hope and opportunity?

Or massive, government-built, high-rise public housing gulags like Lafayette Courts or Lexington Terrace in Baltimore City, where society's most vulnerable are penned up behind barred windows and secured doors with rare glimpses of the means to escape -- good examples, good schools, and good jobs?

At last, Baltimore City is tearing down the worst prisons of the public housing gulag. It's time now for Maryland to show it is indeed the Free State.

David Rusk


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