A bard to tell the story of the counties

April 14, 1996|By Elise Armacost

I REMEMBER, when I was a child, looking one night across the meadow next to our home and noticing an orange glow that started at the horizon and diffused upwards into space. ''That's the city,'' my father said.

I remember being not quite sure whether to believe him, partly because of his penchant for teasing, partly because it just seemed so impossible that you could actually see Baltimore -- or a reflection of it -- from our house in northeastern Carroll County. So far away. That was how the city seemed, literally and figuratively.

Looking back, we were tethered to the city more than we admitted. Often we went there to visit the zoo or see an Orioles game or a play or, later, walk around the Inner Harbor. My father did construction work downtown for years. We rooted for the Colts and always identified ourselves to out-of-town friends and acquaintances as being ''from Baltimore.''

But in important ways we and our neighbors shared little in common with Baltimore and its people, didn't understand its problems or properly appreciate its charms. We neither resented it nor wished we lived there. We certainly didn't fear it, not the way suburbanites do today.

The truth is, we didn't think of it much at all -- as, I suspect, the city didn't think much of us. Not much went on in our neck of the woods that Baltimore newspapers or TV stations cared about. We lived according to the rhythms of rural life, separated from city folk by the sound of spring peepers, the smell of plowed earth, two-light towns and pancake breakfasts at the fire hall.

Twenty-five years later, town and county remain different in many ways, but they no longer inhabit separate universes. City problems and vices are becoming county problems and vices. With suburbanization has come a story often told only sketchily: the struggle to create a new way of life, to make real an American Dream in which everyone owns his own little acre.

The newspaper often overlooks the comings and goings of county residents; their hopes, dilemmas and virtues are deemed a paler shade of Baltimore residents'. It is a perspective that views Baltimore from the inside looking out, as not only the center of, but central to, the region.

I hope to give voice to a different perspective. This is the first of many columns about the suburbs, where more and more residents live, work, play and even die without regard to the city.

The pastoral life

Light rail, the Metro and good, fast roads such as I-97 and I-795 have shortened the distance between Baltimore and the counties. Along these roads, Baltimore residents are fleeing in search of a pastoral life like the one I knew. They're fleeing crime, the poor and racial unease. They're pursuing a dream of better schools, open spaces and, for better or worse, a homogeneity of culture and values not found in the city.

These roads are changing the counties. No longer are they merely satellites of Baltimore. They have become destinations themselves. Job centers, such as Hunt Valley and Columbia. Shopping meccas, such as Owings Mills Mall. Tourist attractions and a place to go for entertainment and night life. The counties are changing in ways many never imagined and others dread. Once totally rural, the counties now include areas that are virtually urban.

How should the counties cope with the problems this change brings? How do local governments provide good schools, a safe environment, green spaces and all the other amenities and services suburbanites expect when the population is growing but revenues are not? How do suburbanites reconcile the dream of a placid, homogeneous society with the reality of an influx of people of different colors, economic levels and social backgrounds?

Why should countians, so many of whom live detached from Baltimore, care what goes on there? What is their obligation to help the city solve its problems? What is city's obligation to help the counties protect their quality of life?

I'll be exploring these issues in the weeks and months to come. I'll be talking about the politics of the counties, among the counties and between the counties and the city. I'll be lending the perspective of one who has grown up, lived and works in the counties.

I'll be writing about elected leaders, community activists, characters, long-time residents trying to save the life they've always known and newcomers seeking a better existence for themselves and their children. About places and events -- not just big towns and major news happenings, but the nooks and crannies, Fourth of July parades and community festivals that give suburban neighborhoods their flavor.

That orange light on the horizon hasn't gone away. Baltimore remains the most important element in the metropolitan area. But it is less and less the hub. All roads no longer lead there. More and more, the story of the Baltimore region is the story of the counties. This column will tell it.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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