Letter from Rodgers Forge: Trouble Right Here In Edge City


Bill Calvin wasn't a famous leader in 1985, just the mayor of a small town. We talked about him for the first time in years this week, as Rodgers Forge recoiled from the thought of three bulimics living nearby as if Jeffrey Dahmer were in our midst.

Mr. Calvin was mayor of Morris Township, N.J. when the Association of Retarded Citizens bought a house there to use as a group home for retarded adults. ARC had already bought houses in two towns next door, and reaction had been frantic.

Hundreds had taken up the cry as one: Property values will fall. How do we know our children won't be terrorized? Our quiet residential community will be forever changed. They're too different, dangerous. Save our community. Keep them out. Get the guns (or the lawyers, today's really heavy artillery).

So when a reporter called Bill Calvin, he expected the mayor to join the crowd. But the mayor had a surprise.

"They're moving to my neighborhood," he said. "And I'm glad they're here."

Bill Calvin was more than just a good person willing to improve the lives of a few retarded people by having the guts to tell his neighbors -- and his constituents -- that their fears were ignorant and morally wrong. He was a smart man who understood what was happening to suburbs like Morris Township -- and like Towson. He understood that they're not the quiet little refuges they may have been once upon a time. They haven't been for years.

Now a group house for mentally ill people is coming to our neighborhood, a collection of 1,777 brick rowhouses that begins just a good shout at midnight from the city-county line. We're glad they're here, even if many of our neighbors and our community association aren't.

Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Health System Community Housing Program has bought a house at 7112 York Road, which it will rent out to three mentally ill outpatients at a time. The residents won't be violent druggies; more like people with eating disorders and depressives, and maybe some schizophrenia patients, Sheppard Pratt officials said. Every one of them will be ready for release.

If the patients don't live in this house, they could freely rent the house next door to ours (except that Mrs. Walters, our seventysomething neighbor, has lived there since the 1940s and would never move). The hospital is a two-minute drive away, with staff on call around the clock and visiting every day.

But when Sheppard Pratt officials tried to explain their plans to a community meeting Wednesday, they had an audience that wasn't listening.

Instead, our neighbors talked about the same things Bill Calvin stared down in Morris Township. They don't want a business in their residential neighborhood (perhaps they haven't noticed the gas station, High's, Royal Farm or Baskin-Robbins in the same strip of York Road). They talked about property values and how )) this three-person house would somehow threaten the quiet residential community they chose to move to.

Different people proposed picketing the house or suing to keep it out. The president of the community association said the group hasn't taken a position (technically true, though another board member said opposition was a foregone conclusion), but admitted to The Evening Sun that it was looking for legal "ammunition" in an attempt to block the plan.

One person wanted the community to have access to the house to verify that residents take their medication. Another told Kim she would help us sell our house because, since we won't fight this, we don't fit into Rodgers Forge. Apparently we, too, are too different.

It's sad that this community of nice people is descending into this thinly disguised prejudice. It's sadder still that all this hot air is being wasted to defend a vision of Towson -- and, more broadly, of suburbia -- that has been history for years.

Simply put, Towson isn't a bedroom suburb any more. It's not a city like Baltimore either. It's a whole new beast, and when all is said and done, the flap over the Sheppard Pratt home is going to be one of the landmarks that helps our neighbors get used to that.

In a new book, journalist Joel Garreau calls them "Edge Cities." In the back, he lists them all, all over the country. Around here, he lists Towson, Hunt Valley and Columbia. He says Owings Mills, White Marsh and the BWI corridor are emerging edge cities.

What's an Edge City? It has 5 million square feet of office space. More than 600,000 square feet of retail space. Its population gets bigger at 9 a.m. -- making Edge City primarily a work place. (If you doubt this applies to Towson, check the Beltway at rush hour). It has a local reputation for offering mixed uses -- housing, entertainment, shopping and work places. And 30 years ago, Mr. Garreau says, it was "overwhelmingly residential or rural in character."

All this is true of Towson. Today, Sheppard Pratt's new house is on the busiest commercial corridor in Towson. It's a mile from the 13th biggest city in America. The house is a mile and a half from Towson Town Center, whose new addition alone is 600,000 square feet. Towson Commons opens in April, adding eight movie theaters, restaurants, and another 200,000 square feet of office space. The Edge City is an accomplished fact.

Edge City happened because people wanted it to happen, Mr. Garreau says. They wanted short commutes from the suburbs to work, convenient shopping, and nearby entertainment. What developers built, people bought. Because they liked it. That simple. Rodgers Forge gives you all that.

You can make the argument that if all these things exist in Edge City, we have a duty to make room for people like the people who will live in this house. But even if you don't, honest people have to admit what Edge City really is, what kind of community we're really discussing here, and whether this house will really disturb some idyll we've all been enjoying.

Edge City has problems that some Ward Cleaver fantasy suburb doesn't. Our neighbors in Rodgers Forge may not want these problems, but they already have them. Ask any of the victims of the recent flurry of Rodgers Forge purse snatchings reported in the Towson Times. Ask the people who got robbed on York Road near the neighborhood when the shotgun bandits were in the headlines. Ask the guy who raced through our back yard one night last month, right after someone called 911 from a nearby house (the police didn't tell us which one) but hung up. If you can find him.

Making Sheppard Pratt's house go away won't change that. Even Sheppard Pratt's mental hospital, something Ward never discussed with The Beav, has been at Rodgers Forge's edge, without a fence, since before the neighborhood was built.

We moved to Rodgers Forge last year from Upperco -- which really is a bedroom-only suburb -- so we know Towson is full of mixed uses. And we knew Rodgers Forge wasn't Cleaverland: A realtor we talked to lives two blocks from our house, and someone had tried to steal his car. We knew it was an Edge City, though we hadn't heard the term yet.

As the saying goes, that's what we moved here for.

Kimberly Mullaney is a health educator in Baltimore. Timothy Mullaney is a reporter for The Sun.

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