``Social engineering'' in the suburbs

June 22, 1996|By ANDREW RATNER

A CRITICISM of the transfer of a fraction of public housing from Baltimore to the counties is that it's ''social engineering.''

That broadside discounts the immense role government has played in shaping the suburbs, as if they were settled by rugged homesteaders on wagon trains. Without the $2.5 billion invested in highway expansion in this region alone the past 15 years, plus billions more for water and sewer systems and other infrastructure, the bedroom communities that have mushroomed in places like Bel Air and Westminster and Odenton would not exist.

If highway building isn't ''social engineering'' -- the term Rep. Bob Ehrlich and others use to attack the shift of subsidized rental units from city to suburb -- it is assuredly engineering with a profound social impact.

President Dwight Eisenhower launched the U.S. interstate system in the mid-1950s to speed commerce and travel. Unwittingly, it also eroded the cities, sometimes by plowing through urban neighborhoods, but also by exacerbating a society of haves and have-nots.

If you reside in the suburbs, take the long way home from work one evening -- when not forced to do so by an overturned 18-wheelic.'' You'll also get a good history lesson, because old roads, like age rings on a tree, tell the story of growth in Central Maryland.

One such journey might follow Route 7, also known as Philadelphia Road, from the city to Bel Air. It was the old colonial post road, later superseded by U.S. 40, which itself became outmoded by I-95, the superhighway President Kennedy inaugurated in Maryland a week before he was assassinated.

The long way home

Out of East Baltimore, you'll pick up Route 7 heading east.

Mile 1: Over there on your left is Hollander Ridge, the public housing towers that loom over the confluence of I-95 and I-895. Some claim former Mayor William Donald Schaefer had it built at the city line to tweak county officials who refused to build public housing. The complex was again a source of friction recently when city housing officials left a gap in a fence around the property, which residents in Rosedale blamed for increased crime.

Mile 3: On your right is Golden Ring, among the early suburban malls. Just as it undid downtown retailing, the glitzier White Marsh Mall clobbered it after opening in 1981 just up the interstate.

Mile 6: A "power center" of hugh warehouse stores is a building -- a new Bigfoot that's come to compete in the suburban market.

Mile 7: You begin seeing road signs of villages that now barely exist, whistle-stops hopscotched by superhighways and sprawl:

Nottingham, Loreley, Van Bibber.

Mile 14: We come to -- Ted Kaczynski's cabin? No, but a ramshackle hovel with gingham curtains and a big sign out front, ''Get US out of the United Nations,'' seems a reminder of how far we've traveled from the city. No, we're not in Baltimore anymore, Toto. Yet the highways and dense suburban housing seem to have narrowed the gap.

Mile 17: Welcome to Abingdon, ground-zero for Harford County's double-digit growth the past decade. Could thousands of families make a home here if they had to travel a Route 7 daily? Not likely. Government created this place, as much as it made public housing.

And, not coincidentally, government is rethinking both those decisions: U.S. Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros wants more livable subsidized housing, while Gov. Parris Glendening wants to invest in older communities to discourage continued sprawl. So when someone next decries ''social engineering,'' the criticism may strike closer to home than you think.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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