Urban mess helps feed our suburban monster

February 04, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Liberty Road in Northwest Baltimore County, from just below Milford Mill to Rolling Road, in a stretch that is not quite three-quarters of a mile long and was once, in distant memory, a quiet country lane, here is what you would find yesterday morning:

Two liquor stores, 15 fast-food outlets, four gas stations, three car mechanics, six hair salons, five clothes cleaners, a tire store, a check-cashing outlet, three used-clothing stores, a video repair shop, a food market, three banks, a tuxedo rental store, a florist, a dentist, an abandoned store, a plant store, a car insurance store, a party rental supplier, a veterinarian, an eyeglass shop, a shoe repair shop, a food market, a drugstore, a military surplus store, a "vintage" furniture store, an art supply store, three shopping plazas with their separate collection of stores, a couple of restaurants and a palm reader.

But Liberty Road, like much of the suburban mess being studied by our great thinkers in Annapolis, doesn't need a neighborhood palm reader to know its future. It looks awful from Milford Mill to Rolling Road, and then it begins to look awful all over again as you approach Old Court Road a few blocks farther north.

From just below Old Court Road to Brenbrook Drive, a distance of slightly more than half a mile, a stretch that was still green and undeveloped for years after the Milford Mill to Rolling Road strip had already been commercialized, there are now the following: Thirteen car repair or tire outlets, nine fast-food outlets, four gas stations, a huge abandoned store, two banks, three restaurants, a video store, a pawnbroker, a foot care specialist, three hair salons, two laundromats, a fitness center, a paint store, a karate center, a real estate office, a car alarm shop, a funeral home and three shopping plazas with their plentitude of stores.

Some of this mess is the forerunner of the thing Gov. Parris Glendening is spending so much time discussing. "Smart growth" he calls it. In other words, the opposite of not only Liberty Road but countless other stretches that erupted over suburban Maryland as part of the abandonment of cities of the past three decades.

All those eyesore commercial strips such as Liberty Road mirrored all over the state, all those drab housing tracts eating up all that greenery, all those dreary miles of road needed every morning and evening to bring all those suburbanites back to the cities they abandoned and then back home, and all those acres ruined: Was no one paying attention while all this was happening?

Belatedly, Glendening is. He's talking of preserving "our agricultural heritage, our green fields and open spaces." By his figuring, if we continue to consume "woodlands and wetlands at this rate . . . over the next 25 years, we will lose over 500,000 acres of forests and farmland." That's the size of Baltimore County and city combined.

But sticking up for ecology's a no-brainer. Everybody's in favor of a clean environment, at least philosophically, but the suburban mess is mainly an outgrowth of the urban mess we've created.

"Government policies," Glendening noted in his State of the State speech last month, "have encouraged our citizens to leave already established neighborhoods and build in the countryside. And they have made it seem as though moving out is moving up."

It's the American way. Everybody knows how Baltimore's lost maybe a quarter-million people since midcentury, but downtowns such as Cumberland and Cambridge and Silver Spring have also suffered. The poor remain behind, with their heightened desperation and needs.

"These trends cost Marylanders hundreds of millions of dollars," Glendening said. "As our constituents move farther and farther from city centers, we are forced to use the money in our budgets to build more roads, new sewer and water systems, to construct new fire and police stations. We do this even as we abandon the roads, sewer systems and schools in our established neighborhoods."

Nobody who's looked at suburban eyesores would argue with Glendening, but he's stating the easy part. What's tougher is giving people a reason not to abandon city neighborhoods, where schools such as Baltimore's fail to educate one generation of kids after another, where the crime rate overwhelms police, and where entire city blocks are uglified by rows of vacant homes while the housing department seems baffled or oblivious.

There's a reason so much of suburbia looks so dreary, why the formerly green places such as cluttered Liberty Road now carry the mark of mindless development from the city line all the way into Carroll County.

It's not just that developers and zoning boards and county governments thought with their wallets instead of their heads. It's that city dwellers were frantic to blow town, and changes had to be made in a hurry.

And, until citizens are assured they can live safely in the cities such as Baltimore, all the suburban restrictions in the world won't keep them from packing their bags and looking elsewhere for some calm and tarred-over place.

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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