The corner store: solutions, problems

June 06, 2007|By Patrick K. Lackey

Two things Americans hate are density and sprawl. Fortunately, there are solutions to each. The solution to density is sprawl, and the solution to sprawl is density. No problem.

Recent reports on a Baltimore City Council member's effort to restrict corner stores brought to mind two other things Americans hate: busy stores close by and long drives to buy even such routine items as milk. The solution to having stores too close is to put them far away. The solution to long drives to stores is to put them close by.

Hey, I have a solution to everything. I can even mix the various problems and solutions. The solution to the problem of stores too close is sprawl. The solution to the problem of stores too far away is density.

A couple of years ago, when my wife and I decided to move from Virginia Beach to the Washington-Baltimore area to be near kids and grandkids, a part of us wanted urban living. I'm a big believer in cities. It is the ultimate unfairness that our cities bear the brunt of the nation's biggest social problem - poverty - while lacking the means to provide solutions. It is the ultimate stupidity that the state and surrounding region do not pitch in more to lighten that burden, keeping in mind that a city is the key to an entire region's economic health. The better off a city, the better off its suburbs. The better off the whole region, the better off the state.

Density, of course, is a city's friend. It makes public transportation possible. It concentrates wealth, raising the tax base. It makes it easier for businesspeople to get together (e-mail and phone calls are no substitute for face-to-face chats). Density is a compressed spring, a source of profound energy. I believe in it.

So where did my wife and I choose to live when we retired and moved here about 18 months ago? The gorgeously serene and century-old Sudbrook Park section of Pikesville. We both grew up in small towns, and Sudbrook is oddly isolated, almost like a small town. From the north, the only route into our neighborhood is over a one-lane bridge. A long park and rail line mainly block entry from the west. A walled rail line blocks entry from the east. We feel off by ourselves, even though we're inside the Beltway, just outside the city. And we're happy, even though moving outside a city I believe in makes me a hypocrite.

Sudbrook Park is different from a small town in one main way: It has no downtown, or for that matter any store. Mary and I walk our dog through the neighborhood daily. I jog around the neighborhood four days a week, admiring the towering trees and feeling safe because there are so few cars and trucks on the streets, and nearly all the drivers are considerate. Otherwise, I don't go anywhere on foot. Toothpaste? Milk? Get in the car. Spew some more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, do my part for global warming. For entertainment? Drive downtown.

There used to be a mail collection box a couple of blocks from my house. The one thing I liked about bill-paying was the stroll to drop off the letters. It felt good to do something, anything, that didn't require a car. But last year, my single walking destination was removed. A mailman said too few letters were dropped there. Now I drive to a post office. It's not that far away, but beyond an easy stroll.

The 7-Eleven I go to if I need only a few items is a fraction over a mile away. Walking there would be dangerous because the route lacks sidewalks, and biking wouldn't do because much of the way the road treacherously lacks even shoulders.

My stepson almost never drives to a destination less than a mile away from his Catonsville home. He walks or bikes. I greatly admire him for it. Except that his bike was totaled and he is under repair after a collision with a car at the beginning of his biking commute to work downtown.

What we all need are solutions that aren't problems. What my neighborhood desperately needs and desperately wouldn't want is a nice little grocery shop within walking distance of most everybody.

I wouldn't want a busy store next to my home, so I can't expect anyone else to welcome a new store next door.

But don't get me wrong. I believe in cities. And in density. Somewhere else.

Fortunately for America, more people are choosing density. But I do love my quiet neighborhood.

Patrick K. Lackey is a retired journalist. His e-mail is patrickklackey@aol.com.

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