From distant suburbs, D.C. feels far from home

The view: In fast-growng Harford County, residents sem too busy living their lives to care much about Washington

July 19, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

EDGEWOOD,MD. - From the stoop of her comfortable suburban home, Mary Alexander looks at her new world, one replete with chirping birds, friendly neighbors and tidy lawns.

"I feel like I'm in God's country," says Alexander, who said goodbye to Baltimore in September after living there since birth and working for the past decade as a 7-Eleven cashier.

Now 62, she lives with her son in the $180,000 house he bought outside Edgewood, on the eastern edge of Harford County. Sure, she knows there is a presidential election coming up. But what could any politician possibly do to make her life happier?

"As far as I'm concerned," she says, "let's just keep things going the way they are."

So it is in this county, where new housing developments are spreading across untouched woodlands like fast-moving lava. Every new home built gives birth to a dream of amenities once taken for granted, but that have become hard to come by in many places - quiet streets, good schools and the confidence to leave the front door unlocked.

Securing the good life is such an obsession with residents of America's new suburbia - these outer-orbit communities - that they aren't paying much attention to what national leaders are up to. There is a disconnect from Washington. Voters here speak of the federal government as a waste of time, irrelevant, unable to tackle the issues that matter.

It's neither apathy nor anger, people say. While small-business owners worry about surviving in the face of competition from Wal-Mart and Home Depot, they don't see the federal government as having a role in helping them. Parents worry about making sure their children are covered by medical insurance but don't see elected officials ever ending their debate and forging a solution.

The entrenched belief: Politicians are beholden to those with money and just not interested in making sure kids in Harford County learn well in school or that residents keep their jobs.

It's the view of Patrick Stinnett, a father of three who bought a house six years ago near Bel Air and works in Baltimore as a chemical engineer.

How can the government say it is reforming education, he wonders, when his son's elementary school was so crowded that it had portable classrooms as soon as it opened in 1997? How can Washington say it cares about his job at FMC Corp., when improving trade relations with China could one day mean that the chemical company finds cheaper labor abroad?

"If I were FMC, I'd move," says Stinnett. "And as far as the trade agreements go, people had no vote."

`A dream come true'

Eugene Pearson, 33, grew up near Patterson Park in East Baltimore. He bought his first house two years ago for $128,000 in Edgewood's Harbor Oaks development, where streets have names such as Pintail Court, Sweet Bay Drive and Shelter Cove.

"After working in the city, I just wanted an area where I could come home and it's peaceful," says Pearson, manager of a janitorial services business, who lives with his wife and four stepchildren on Ebbtide Drive.

He says the curriculum in the Edgewood public schools seems challenging, his business hasn't been beset by new taxes in the past four years, and that no issues matter more than those.

"This is like a dream come true," he says while walking his dog. "We don't have too many problems out here."

Not that folks here ignore hot-button national topics. They are informed and have viewpoints. They just don't see Washington as a problem-solver.

At Jo Momma's, a steak and seafood house in Edgewood, owner Jeff Gordon, a resident of Northeast Baltimore until moving to Harford two years ago, says guns should not be so widely available. But he says he no longer pays attention to debates on gun control.

"Some of the bills they pass?" he says, shaking his head. "Well, assault weapons are still available. And what in the world does someone need an assault weapon for?"

Gordon, 43, fulfilled a lifelong dream when he opened his first business, launching the restaurant in May with the help of a $150,000 loan from the Small Business Administration. Aside from receiving that check, though, Gordon says he doesn't bother with Washington. He's more interested in how his mutual funds are performing, making certain that local schools remain as good as advertised when he moved to Bel Air, and serving fresh blue crabs.

"I'm happy with the way things are going," Gordon says, denying any serious interest in politics. "I'm too busy with my kids."

It is no surprise that as city-dwellers seek to move, they are now forced to look farther out to places such as Harford County, since closer suburbs have become costlier and heavily populated. Census data show that the percentage of U.S. citizens living in suburbs of major cities doubled between 1950 and 1990, to 46 percent.

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