When a town becomes an 'exurb'

June 02, 1996|By Elise Armacost

I'M NOT SURE when, exactly, my home town began to metamorphose into an exurb. Some might say it was the day McDonald's threw up the golden arches on Route 30. Or, perhaps, when developer Martin K. Hill bought a field just outside the Hampstead town limits. An old friend thinks the change began when the H.R. Lippy penny-candy shop went out of business.

My own theory is that Hampstead the exurb was born the day somebody at the Carroll County Board of Education decided to shut down the old two-story brick elementary school on Main Street and build a new one on the outskirts.

It was a Beaver Cleaver kind of building, with a sweeping front lawn that served as a town commons and big leafy maples in the playground. Every day it generated the pleasant din of a couple of hundred children and a constant traffic that fed the candy shop, Bob's Variety Store and the local library branch, which occupied a little storefront across the street.

Now there are two new schools, both full as sardine cans, on the outskirts, where -- as is the case with most exurbanized towns -- all the action seems to have migrated.

The mayor and council members all live in subdivisions tacked onto the town in the last decade and a half. The library branch moved out of town in the mid-1980s to a former field accessible only by automobile. When you ran out of milk, you used to run to Bauerlein's, a family-owned butcher shop cum grocery tucked onto a side street. It closed recently, apparently unable to compete with a new Weis on the southern outskirts and a new Festival Foods at the opposite pole.

My mother says the town has been ruined, but she's looking through the fuzzy lens of nostalgia and can't see things exactly as they were, or as they are. She loves that new Festival Foods.

Hampstead is still a very small town. Still rural, still quiet, still a nice place to raise a family, despite the influx of thousands of ''outsiders'' who are moving there for precisely those qualities. In 1970, the town's population stood at 961. By 1990 it had jumped to 2,608 and a mere six years later it has passed 4,000, making it one of the hottest real-estate markets in the metropolitan area.

Hampstead's assessable tax base grew 395 percent over past decade, the second-fastest rate of growth of any of Maryland's 156 municipalities. Considering that, it's amazing that the town -- which still looks pretty much the same once you get past the golden arches -- hasn't changed more.

Bright new leaders

And yet, it's not the town where I grew up. Suburban growth has its benefits. It drives the local economy and gives families affordable homes and good schools. It keeps communities from stagnation. It has brought Hampstead bright new elected leaders who are more savvy about the need to control growth than the old-timers who let too much building occur too fast.

But suburbanization carries a price too: the loss of familial community -- of ''townhood.'' Subdivisions tend toward isolation. Residents move to places like Hampstead because they want the small-town atmosphere; then they destroy the very thing they came for by isolating themselves in their own cul-de-sacs. Typically, they want one road leading in and out of their neighborhood.

So the old town becomes broken up into communities disconnected from each other. ''It doesn't seem like residents work together from one development to the other,'' observes town manager Neil Ridgely. ''People keep to themselves.''

Last week Hampstead held ''Hampstead Day,'' invented by the local Rotary Club 23 years ago. In the beginning, says George Lawson, past president of the club, ''There was no doubt we just had a great big family picnic.'' The school band and choir entertained on the elementary lawn, teachers displayed children's art work in the gym, the booths and vendors were run by faces you recognized.

The Hampstead Day that occurred last week was less a family picnic than another stop on the flea-market circuit, with most of the vendors from places like Delaware and South Jersey, hawking Dr. Seuss hats and Elvis flags instead of Depression glass dug out of nearby attics. The local schools don't participate anymore, because they don't want the hassle of setting up chairs, risers and booths; and the Rotary Club, which had 50 members in 1973, can't pick up the slack because its ranks have dropped to 15. The new bedroom commuters, Mr. Lawson says, are too busy to give up a night a week.

That's just the way it is in the exurbs of the '90s. We who remember H.R. Lippy's candy and school buses on Main Street should be forgiven if, occasionally, we shake our heads and say, ''It's ruined, I liked it the better the way it was.''

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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