FORTY YEARS AGO this summer, my family moved from the city of Baltimore to the vast pioneer wilderness of Liberty Road. Naturally, being 17, I worried about leaving behind the important elements of civilization. Anxiety spilling from every pore, I plugged in the radio in my new bedroom and heard the sound of the Coasters arriving like an old friend.
"Walks in the classroom
Cool and slow
Who calls the English
Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown ..."
The greatness of American culture had prevailed. Despite all fears, despite what seemed like a continent of distance, the radio signal reached all the way out to Courtleigh Drive, to the edges of Randallstown, to the New World.
It was a new world, but it's still a small one. Forty years ago, Liberty Road seemed one of the antidotes to the city's troubles. It was safe way out there. But today, despite its undeniable successes, the Liberty Road corridor sometimes seems like a mirror of the city 40 years ago. It's not always as safe as it seems.
Back then, I could look out the rear window of my family's new house to a back yard that stretched out about 40 yards. Immediately past it was a large, undeveloped grassy area. It stayed that way for a couple of years -- and then, directly at the back edge of my yard, a small apartment development was built.
It was called Savoy East, and its ghostly remains made their way into the news last week.
Amid much good cheer, Baltimore County officials dedicated a little park with a playground and benches, called Stevenswood Park, on the site of what used to be those Savoy East apartments. That was some place. It had only 66 units. But, from 1992 to 1997 -- long after my family had moved back into the city -- county police responded to an average of 245 calls each year.
Three years ago, the county bought the apartment complex and razed it. Last week, County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger declared: "Savoy East had to go. It was a cancer that was growing."
The cancer was built on the usual problems: drugs and crime, and fear and uncertainty, and individuals with their lives going nowhere trying to cut corners to someplace better.
Forty years ago, you could stand on that piece of land and see the last remnants of what had been a quiet country lane. Last week, you could stand in the new park and hear the incessant loudspeaker voice of a Popeye's carryout on Liberty Road about 75 yards away.
Within a stone's throw are two shopping centers, Savoy Plaza and Liberty Crossroads, and just past nearby Old Court Road, there's Liberty Court Shopping Center. The old Randy Rock ice cream hangout is now Sudsville, a big coin-operated laundry. What was once a rural country lane has long since become utterly commercialized, heavily trafficked, no different in unpleasant density from Ritchie Highway.
My family's old house on Courtleigh Drive now has a sign out front: ADT burglar-proof. As you pull off of Liberty Road, there's a sign on the corner reading "Stevenswood Community: Citizens On Patrol."
What makes the Liberty Road story particularly poignant is that, in the second wave of the suburban exodus, this is where blacks leaving the city, and fleeing its troubles, found new homes. The Liberty Road corridor is 70 percent African-American, according to recent census figures.
It is also a sign of how far the country's come in a relatively short period of history: The median income of black families in the Liberty Road area is higher than the median income of the entire county.
But it's also an area with pockets of poverty, with Section 8 low-income housing, and with individuals -- like some who lived in the Savoy East apartments -- working the edges of the law.
It is society's constant problem: What do we do with those individuals who ruin entire communities? For years, it's been the city's problem. But, more and more, it's suburbia's, too. The opening of little Stevenswood Park last week was the fifth park to be dedicated this year. Six more are anticipated. All are replacing troubled, crime-ridden areas -- many on the county's east side, infamous places such as the Villages of Tall Trees and Riverdale Apartments -- that were crime- and drug-infested.
Nobody moved to these places in search of trouble. Many arrived in suburbia, like my own family 40 years ago, thinking they'd left the city's troubles behind. The problems catch up. The newest solution is to tear down apartments and replace them with parks.
But the people who lived in those apartments have to move someplace. They bring their troubles with them. And, once they arrive, we still haven't figured out what to do then.