Return of the S-people

January 13, 1996|By Andrew Ratner

A YEAR AGO, I wrote a piece in this space arguing that people who live in the city and suburbs are more alike than they're typically portrayed. It was headlined, ''the C-People and the S-People.'' Three more S's last week reconfirmed for me why we should stop defining city and suburb as oil and water.

The first S, of course, was the great snow. It was a grand communal happening -- Ripken ''Streak Week'' without the scalpers (unless you count the hustlers asking $50 to shovel driveways), or a papal visit without the parade. Yet it was even more than that. Record blizzards, like stifling heat waves or an assassination attempt on a political leader, are those rare events that suspend everyone's lives and make us comprehend we're all in this together.

It would be nice to think such a realization dawned more often, say at religious services or at Thanksgiving. But deep down, most of us would admit that is not the case. We say grace, but go through the motions, maintaining our convictions about how different (read: better) we are from people who live 20 miles down the road. A ferocious storm makes clearer our equality, everyone sharing similar fears and foibles.

When will the plows get to the side streets? Is another storm truly on its way? Could a neighbor use help? Alas, such global-village thinking will melt into the Chesapeake with the remains of the Blizzard of '96. Or be whited out by a media that tends to overemphasize the political corners of our brains, as if everyone on the street identifies himself as a disciple of Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton.

I found another ''S'' at one of the higher elevations in the region, the Scarboro dump in northern Harford County. On the way home from dropping off some junk too large to set out at the curb, I looked out over a vista of peaks and valleys that more resembled Pennsylvania than the Maryland flatlands that roll toward the bay. As my mind swung between envy of the folks who awake to this achingly beautiful view, and fear over how disturbingly isolated the boondocks seemed, it again dawned on me how suburbanites have more in common with their city cousins than their country ones.

Snow, Scarboro, Schmoke

A Census Bureau map of the Baltimore-Washington market reveals that the ''urbanized'' part (more than 1,000 people per square mile) covers barely a fifth of the 25-county, two-city area. Even this fourth most populous region in the U.S. is made up mostly of sweeping rural spaces dotted by an occasional variety store with an old Coke sign out front. It is the rest of us, the city and suburban dwellers, who live in places with rising crime, road congestion and super-stores obliterating mom and pops. Grouse most of us do about crowds and traffic, denizens of a metropolitan area at heart prefer being around other people. It is another part of what makes city and suburban folk more alike than different.

Kurt L. Schmoke was cause for the third ''S'' after it was reported that he and his wife settled on a waterfront vacation home outside Annapolis. The mayor of Baltimore was apologetic about the purchase. It was similar to his wriggle a few years ago when he enrolled his daughter in private school. But Mr. Schmoke needn't have danced.

He was simply illustrating a truth that doesn't always reverberate in his political comments; that is, people share the same wishes in city or suburb. They want security for their families, time to enjoy life (and twice weekly garbage pick-up.) The mayor wasn't betraying his allegiance to Baltimore. He was merely confirming that where we choose to live isn't nearly so defining a trait as how we choose to live.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

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