A city-billy discovers a life in the suburbs


June 30, 1996|By NORRIS WEST

IT HAS TAKEN a while, but I've become a Howard countian. The transformation didn't happen immediately upon my family's move to the county five years ago. It was a gradual process that sneaked up on me, like my specks of gray hair.

I spent my first 28 years living in concrete-covered city neighborhoods and the last 10 adamantly contending that the only place I considered "home" was Philadelphia, specifically North and West Philly.

Until now.

My first step away from Philadelphia roots came in 1986 when I left Pennsylvania to take a job at a daily paper in Toledo, Ohio.

There, I encountered culture shock. I had to get used to the more conservative Midwestern attitudes and to accents as flat as the Ohio terrain.

We lived just outside Toledo. Our address was Maumee, Ohio, home of the internationally famous -- or just International League-famous? -- Toledo Mud-hens minor-league baseball team.

We lived in a three-bedroom apartment in an interracial community. Our neighbors included a computer technician, a county government clerk, an engineer and a professional boxer who eventually won a super middleweight crown.

At work, I covered everything from crime and City Hall to migrant workers and the 1988 presidential campaign.

I hoped Michael S. Dukakis would win that election. Our newspaper's photographer snapped a picture of me and "Duke" on the campaign trail and it appeared that I was giving him a ferocious grilling. It would have looked awfully impressive, having been photographed holding an eventual president's feet to the fire.

Later, that summer, I was part of a pack of reporters following then-Vice President George Bush through California and Colorado. I heard the phrase "Read my lips" more times than I care to remember.

The Evening Sun hired me in 1989 to cover Howard County. When looking for a place to live, a friend from Philadelphia who had settled in Baltimore gave us a tour of the city. He took us to fine neighborhoods where residents cared about the community.

Suburbia's grip

We briefly considered moving to Charm City, but knew we wouldn't. Suburbia had tightened its grip. With three young children who needed recreational facilities for their boundless energy, we naturally gravitated to Columbia to scout a home. We had heard about this New Town and the utopian dream of the late Jim Rouse that remains elusive.

We thought some neighborhoods were picturesque. Still others looked like they had rolled off General Motors' assembly line. Then we saw the prices.

I still don't know which was more jarring, culture shock in Toledo or sticker shock in Howard County. The prices chased us to Baltimore County. We camped out in Owings Mills for two years before making another foray into Howard.

Unless something unforeseen happens, we don't plan to leave Howard. We've come to appreciate its proximity to two major cities and have been fortunate to find schools with concerned teachers and administrators.

I've become like most suburbanites. I would be stranded without my car, clunker that it is. And, of course, there are lower auto insurance rates, better public schools and less crime than in the metropolis.

I have deep affection for the city's many virtues (such as Camden Yards) and profound empathy for its many problems (such as low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods that

have not played on an equal field.)

Sparkle's the same

While covering city neighborhoods, I've seen the sparkle in the eyes of first-grade inner-city pupils no different from what you'll find in any suburban school. I've prayed that somehow these children would overcome the enormous obstacles that history, society and people around them have put in their way.

So although I have become a suburbanite, I have not lost touch with my urban side. My soul remains attached to the city like the road that takes me to Baltimore from my Ellicott City home at least once a week.

But as an editorial writer in Howard County, issues here will occupy my mind. There is much to say about this community. Howard has a history of great pride for its key role in the development of America's railroad system and of shame for the slavery that once flourished here.

In the years since it became independent of neighboring Anne Arundel County, Howard has had made great strides. Columbia remains an American wonder. But things are far from perfect.

My columns in this space on Sundays will aim to discuss some of the county's challenges and triumphs.

There should be plenty of room for agreement and for dissent. Whatever the case, the aim always will be on making things just a little better for people from all corners of the county.

And I won't forget the city.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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