"The suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth."
— Rush, "Subdivisions"
You have to live somewhere.
For something so obvious, this fact seems to get lost when the discussion turns — as it so often does — to whether Baltimore is too dangerous a place to live or raise a family.
But every decision about where to live is both a positive and a negative choice. In opting for one place, you are rejecting all the other possibilities. You don't choose in a vacuum.
When we were planning to move here from the West Coast 10 years ago, the real estate agent sized up my wife — a white, educated, middle-class mother of three — and drove her out to the county to check out houses. My wife was dismayed by the blandness of Baltimore's inner suburbs: the McMansions of Timonium; the homogeneous, nearly all-white communities of Stoneleigh and Rodgers Forge. She kept shaking her head as they drove around until she began to notice some changes: older houses in various styles, people of diverse races and cultures, a lively buzz of activity on the streets.
"This is much better. I could live here," my wife said. "We're in the city now," the agent told her.
We put in a bid on a North Baltimore rowhouse the next day, and we've been here ever since. Our kids have thrived in the local public schools. Our affection for the city grows by the day.
Maybe you don't share my devotion to Baltimore, and that's fine. But the question remains: If not here, where?
Well, there are always the inner suburbs, which are no longer a refuge from "urban" crime and poverty and are plagued by transportation snarls. Or, you might choose one of our more far-flung communities, spending hours a day in your car and enduring the many social and cultural limitations of exurban life.
You could even live in Western Maryland or on the Eastern Shore, surrounded by natural beauty but at risk of losing your mind from being cut off from the things that make life interesting: cultural diversity, art, live music, good restaurants, even a decent movie theater.
People fret about crime in the city, and it's a legitimate fear. Violence has not affected me personally, but I know people who have been attacked. Friends have suffered repeated break-ins. My son was robbed on a bus. We've had locked bicycles stolen from our front porch.
But it's been a long time since suburbanites have been free of the fear of crime and violence. When was the last major shooting at an inner-city school? Such incidents almost always occur in small towns and suburbs. A case in point was the shooting at Perry Hall High School on the first day of school in 2012. Even Baltimore's "friendliest" suburbs are far from immune to what are still thought of as urban ills; Catonsville, generally considered a highly livable suburb, was shattered by a fatal convenience store shooting a few years ago.
Then there are the threats that are intrinsic to suburbs. As urbanist Charles Montgomery pointed out recently on "Midday" with Dan Rodricks on WYPR, people often flee Baltimore when they have kids because they feel it's too dangerous here. And yet, as Mr. Montgomery noted, even in the Baltimore area you are more likely to be killed by a stranger in the suburbs than in the city: "It just happens that the stranger who kills you will be driving a car."
Other harms may not be as obvious but are just as real. There is the danger to personal relationships and emotional health from all those hours spent in the car rather than among family and friends. There is the damage to our environment from burning fuel to deliver residents to distant suburban homes — and the huge cost to our natural systems of building the infrastructure to house them there. Not least, there is the risk to kids' psychosocial development from growing up bored, disengaged and perhaps unconcerned with people who are not like themselves.
We must continue to talk and think about improving safety in Baltimore. But let's not allow that discussion to be dominated by the relentless negativity that so often drives these debates. Above all, let's stop pretending that the choice before us is between a ravaged city and some sort of utopian wonderland outside its borders.
Michael Cross-Barnet, a Baltimore writer, is a former op-ed page editor of The Sun. His email is email@example.com.
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