As this club grows, membership declines

April 06, 1996|By Andrew Ratner

A CITY that has lost 200,000 residents in the past 20 years has signs enough of decline: Empty rowhouses. Open-air drug markets. Even the feel-good motto stenciled on park benches, ''The City That Reads,'' has been made a mockery with so many library closings threatened.

But there's no more ubiquitous symbol of Baltimore's slide than a yard-long steel rod that can be seen inside cars on every city block these days: The Club.

Sometimes marketed under other names, it's the anti-car theft device that locks onto steering wheels, making them all but impossible to turn. In Baltimore's suburbs, you'll notice an occasional Club in a car in a shopping-center lot. But in the city, it's hard to pass a street without seeing several cars fortified this way.

Winner International Corp., the Pennsylvania manufacturer whose fortunes have soared alongside its ''Club,'' is a private concern that doesn't release sales figures. But a representative acknowledges that city customers are its mainstay. ''We need to reach out to the suburban driver more,'' spokesman Tom McCartney says. ''They tend to think car theft's not a problem.''

There's nothing wrong with using such equipment, especially if it deters auto theft -- and police say it does, when locked properly. But the fact that so many city dwellers feel a need to use The Club may be the most subtle, yet sweeping indictment of the quality of life in Baltimore. The product is a tangible symptom of community anxiety, a ''misery index'' in metal. Its presence sends a message: We're scared. And for good reason.

In 1994, the last year full records are available, Baltimore had 13,600 vehicle thefts. That was one for every 18 vehicles registered in the city. That's more vehicles than were stolen in the five suburban jurisdictions around Baltimore combined -- 10,000. Perhaps even more significant, the rate of incidence was much, much lower in the counties: one for every 143 vehicles registered. (The theft rate in the city 20 years ago was about one per 40 vehicles registered.)

The suburbs are hardly crime-free, or fear-free. Last month's rape of a teen-age girl in Howard County, with her younger sister forced to look on, after the pair was abducted outside a library was as terrifying a crime as any inflicted on our region recently.

Where crime's an aberration

Nevertheless, crime in the suburbs remains an aberration, a bad thing that's not supposed to occur, distress that befalls the friend of a friend of a friend. In fact, the crime rate in the metropolitan counties has held steady or dropped in the past 20 years -- except in Baltimore County, which suffers the classic decay of an older suburb; its rate of violent crime has quadrupled in a generation.

In the city, crime has become a numbing condition. One colleague who lives in Northwest Baltimore refers to his family's vehicles stolen over the years as another city ''tax.''

Obviously, there's no easy fix to what ails urban America. The problems seem to dwarf meager political remedies. Alas, Baltimore City Hall went from ''Mayor Annoyed'' to a mayoral void, though one wonders if even the tantrums of administrations past would be a match for current woes. It's a cruel irony that while Baltimore's reputation as a place to visit has grown from a weakness to a strength, its neighborhoods have taken the opposite route.

Professional planners will continue to lament the ''sterility'' of the 'burbs. Environmentalists will decry suburban sprawl. But a human desire to feel secure will drive the housing market outward more than any other concern.

How to fix urban America remains the $64,000 question. The answer, however, retails for about $40: As long as dependence on The Club is so much greater in city than suburb, the divide will endure.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/06/96

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