Yearning for safety in jittery suburbs

April 01, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

You don't understand," the girl says. She is 16 and already feeling nostalgic for a time, and a gentler lifestyle, she sees slipping away. She says she and her girlfriends are going shopping. I mention a mall; she sneers. Nobody goes there any more, she says. Her girlfriends nod in solemn agreement. They'll go to some other mall, which is more distant, where it's more difficult to negotiate the Beltway traffic, where it's 15 minutes further from home than the first mall. But it's safer.

"Safer?" I ask.

I mention crime figures I've gotten recently from Baltimore County police. The figures cover every mall in the county. Yes, the numbers have risen slightly, but they're still pretty small, the malls are still safe, and we're not taking our lives into our hands when we enter them. And this particular mall that I suggested, it's no more dangerous than most, and still safer than many.

"You don't understand," she says. "I grew up in that place. It's not like it used to be."

The words are momentarily stunning. She's recalling her childhood as though from some distance, when she's barely out of her pipsqueak years. In her head, the past is already out of reach, a scarf blown down a windy street. She remembers a time when she knew no fears. Things change, and the speed with which they change accelerates. She's talking about safety in suburbia, when it's always been assumed that suburbia was all about safety, or it was about nothing at all.

"And now it's not safe to go there?" I ask, as she and her friends ready to go to this more distant mall.

"Eeew," she says, and an echo of this sentiment is sounded by the others.

Partly, the girl's concerns mirror the changeover from childhood to adolescence, from holding her parents' hands to strolling about strictly with her friends. She's aware of things she never thought about before, and feeling uneasy about them. Also, though, there's a sense of threat in the air, which is talked about in all the shopping mall food bazaars, because the malls are those rare places where suburbanites gather at something that makes them feel vaguely like a community.

Some of us used to sneer at the very notion of shopping malls, which are designed to appeal to our least attractive qualities. They are little enclosed cities in which nobody actually lives, but everybody's expected to spend. We go there because we can buy things. We buy things not because we need them, but because we've been programmed to want them. It's suburbia's version of lust, sanitized for our protection.

But it's not so easy to sneer now. There's something to be said for safety, something nice about a bunch of people gathering in one place, saying hello to neighbors they haven't seen since - well, since the last time they bumped into each other at the mall.

In the city, it's getting tougher to find such places. Some of the streets have turned murderous. On many of the streets, there's the shadow of fear. And now, the city's more mobile predators are beginning to commute beyond the various county lines.

Thus we see Baltimore County's police bracing themselves. Thus we see their newest creation, the CAT Squads, highly visible marked cars on main drags, shows of deterrence to all those pondering lawbreaking beyond city limits. Thus, too, we see the latest trends in the movement of families from the city: hopscotching Baltimore County for Harford and Howard and Carroll, where they hope to stall the arrival of the ominous future until somebody comes up with a better game plan.

And even as suburbia gets jittery, the city continues to tremble, and the pace of the 30-year exodus picks up, leaving Baltimore with its lowest population since World War I.

In Annapolis next week, the legislature wraps up its business. Gambling's apparently dead for now, though many embraced it as a bringer of thousands of jobs and untold millions of dollars and salvation for the racing industry.

The city's schools await word on a $254 million state aid package, though some suburban legislators have balked, asking, "What about us?" Isn't this ironic? These are the same legislators worried about city folks invading their suburban neighborhoods and their shopping malls to commit crimes.

Why are they committing crimes? Because they don't work for a living.

Why don't they work for a living? Let us count the ways: The endless pit of urban poverty, in which the walls get steeper and tougher to climb with each passing generation. The feeling they've been dealt out of the employment game, so why bother trying to take part in it? The lack of skills in an increasingly technological economy. And the second-rate education that stacked the deck against them from the very beginning.

So the cycle continues. And the crime spreads outward, and the edginess grows, and we now have 16-year old girls, who should have spent their childhood on playgrounds in the sun, who should have been playing jump-rope on the sidewalk, only they're the generation that came of age in shopping malls, where it was safe.

And now we hear them saying: Maybe we should hopscotch shopping centers, the way our parents are beginning to hopscotch entire counties.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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