Exodus from Baltimore: It's about behavior

March 25, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON REISTERSTOWN Road just past twilight, as the city turns into Baltimore County near Colonial Village Shopping Center, you begin to see the premature arrival of the future: First one county police car and then another, and then two of them near the 7-Eleven and two more by Carvel Ice Cream, until you've seen seven marked police cars in all and you've barely traveled a mile.

"They're sending a message," says the guy riding in the car with me, who happens to be a criminal defense attorney.

"Which is?"

"Don't even think about coming out here."

Referring, obviously, to those in the city of Baltimore discovering they've looted much of what's valuable inside city limits and now wish to turn their attention to the more lucrative suburbs. Baltimore County is feeling the pinch. Also, a little neglect. The pinch comes from signs of new criminal activity. The neglect comes from reports of people bailing out of the city at a breathtaking pace, but choosing to bypass Baltimore County for the more distant and safe Howard and Carroll and Harford counties.

So, never mind those county police cars just outside the city line. There ought to be city officials just inside the line, the mayor and the entire City Council and the poor souls who try to balance the city's bankbooks, not searching for criminals but for those honest families who tried to find the good life in the city and gave up, and now should be begged to reconsider and not leave.

The latest numbers show the city's population has dropped to its lowest level since George Herman Ruth was known as a juvenile delinquent. Many years later, at midcentury, the city comprised 40 percent of the state's population. Now, 13 percent. Last year alone, there was a net drop of 14,000 people. To which this mayor, after nine years in office, expresses concern but acknowledges he has no idea how to stop the flow.

He does, however, know the causes. The main one is crime, which has now chewed parts of this city down to its bones. This is why, along places such as Reisters-town Road just into Baltimore County, we have such a highly visible police presence over the past month.

They wish to stop it at the border. They wish not to become another city of Baltimore. They want potential lawbreakers heading along main corridors such as Reisterstown and Liberty roads and Pulaski Highway and four other main strips to note the new high-profile look - Community Action Teams, or CAT Squads, they're called - and have second thoughts about breaking into a house or stealing a car.

"It's not an army of occupation," says county police spokesman Bill Toohey. "We're just trying to complement the existing police and community groups."

The city, on the other hand, bounces from one jittery approach to another. The police commissioner and various council members argue about drug policy,the street cops wait for some definitive word of direction. If it's Tuesday, this must be Zero Tolerance Day.

Meanwhile, the mayor OKs a plan that would bring $254 million in state money to the schools, but now hears last-minute voices urging him to nix the deal, that the city's giving up too much political power. As if politics matters more than another generation of kids getting cheated out of a future.

And the exodus from city neighborhoods continues, leaving behind chunks of empty houses that sit there and become shooting galleries for the junkies. Trash is strewn in empty yards, and rodents come out of hiding to scrounge for food. The housing department, once the city's center of imagination, seems outmanned. Further, it's run by a man, Daniel P. Henson III, whose public instinct has been to play the race card, which divides the city even more.

The current exodus isn't about race, though some will say it is. It's about behavior. This is an exodus of white people and black, and all others who simply fear the crime, and hear no public language from Kurt L. Schmoke about acceptable conduct in our neighborhoods or in our schools, no words seeking simple good will between various groups feeling estranged from one another. Such sentiments would sound a little hollow from this mayor after his last political campaign.

So his city continues to empty, meaning not only the increase in vacant housing but also the erosion of the tax base. How do you pay for more cops when there are fewer taxpayers remaining? How? You ask the state for help. But state officials, formerly not wanting to alienate such a power broker as the mayor of Baltimore, now ask themselves a question: What power? Where are his votes? And so they feel less reluctant to turn their backs.

Instead, they beef up their own police. Along the corridors like Reisterstown Road, the CAT Squads are out there now, showing new muscle, trying to chill potential lawbreakers and simultaneously show county residents they can feel safe.

What's next? Does the day come when city folks will need a passport to cross the county line? Will the last resident leaving the city remember to leave a key under the mat? Not that anybody's coming back ...

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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