Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

November 09, 1997|By Elise Armacost

NOT LONG AGO Carroll County Commissioner Richard Yates opined that Baltimore City may as well crumble and rot, for all it mattered to him. I found the callousness of his remarks less disturbing than the knowledge that so many smarter, more compassionate people share his misguided sense of detachment.

In a way, it is hard to blame those of us who live in small towns in Baltimore County, nice subdivisions in Severna Park and wooded seclusion in western Howard County for thinking we are safely removed from urban problems. The view from my window is serene and pretty. No one has ever stolen anything from my porch. If I didn't know better, I would think we lived hundreds of miles from a struggling major American city.

But the sense of isolation and independence is a delusion. The signs of our connectedness to the city and its equally troubled inner suburbs are all around us, though we have not been astute enough to see them for what they are.

During rush hour, there's a steady stream of cars in front of my house in Glyndon as commuters from Carroll County and Pennsylvania drive home through the valleys from their jobs in Hunt Valley, Towson and Baltimore. We are no different than any other neighborhood; we hate the traffic, and rue the development that has spawned it.

The good life

We don't think too much about why all these people have come out here. They are from the city, from Middle River, Arbutus, Towson and Catonsville. People like us, in search of a good life for their families, who feel they can no longer find it in urban and older inner-ring suburban neighborhoods, where the tax base is shrinking as poverty rises and roads, sewers and buildings age.

They are buying the houses that eat farmland and forests, crowding the schools and congesting the roads. Yesterday, we were them. Tomorrow, they will be like us, wanting to look over their shoulders and find no one following them.

For some years now, civic-minded people in the Baltimore area have tried to counter the usual response to urban troubles -- escape -- with the concept of ''regionalism.'' Regionalism holds that there is no running away, that the problems of the urban core inevitably leach farther and farther out as people hopscotch from one place to another. It says we all would be better off if the city and the counties relaxed their jurisdictional loyalties, surrendered a bit of power, and tackled important financial, social and land-use policies from the standpoint of what's best for the entire area.

Regionalism has never captured the public's fancy -- partly, I am convinced, because the word is so bureaucratic and dull, but mostly because people living nice lives out in the counties and their elected leaders don't see anything in it for them. Regionalism's big problem is that it too often sounds like a scheme to save Baltimore City at county taxpayers' expense, with no commensurate benefit.

But there is something in it for us.

Last week, Minnesota Rep. Myron Orfield, a respected authority on metropolitan regions, made a powerful argument here for why unpopular regional tactics to make older urban neighborhoods competitive again -- property tax-base sharing, regional land-use planning, distributing the supply of affordable housing to disperse the needy -- are necessary, for the counties' sake as much as the city's.

Surban decline

Mr. Orfield has been studying our region intensely for two years. He finds serious economic and social problems accelerating most rapidly in the suburbs, not the city. Schools where more than 26 percent of children are eligible for free and reduced-price meals -- a level of poverty that always induces those who can afford to move to do so -- now occupy wide, growing areas of Baltimore County, as well as large pockets of the other counties.

The wealthier suburbs may think none of this matters to them, and the struggling ones may deny it. But the continued flight of families from neighborhoods too poor to provide the requisite services for a decent life creates a migratory ripple effect that impacts communities at all socioeconomic levels. The counties' most pressing problems -- traffic, crowded schools, growth -- all stem from cities' and older suburbs' eroding tax base and burgeoning social needs.

Let the city and our older neighborhoods rot, and we'll find soon enough that they weren't the only places that paid the price for our indifference.

Elise Armacost is an editorial writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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