Three-hundred and thirty-something-year-old Baltimore County is suffering an identity crisis.
The suburb is no longer the stuff of Barry Levinson's "Avalon," or home to Ward and the Beaver. You can sense the transformation in the debate over a changing school system, in the heightened fear over crime. There's concern about the aesthetics of a growing county seat, about threats to rural zoning, about the continued loss of job security in the industrial east, about the urbanization that has spawned political redistricting in the west and about the fast-growing retiree population.
And in the midst of all this change, one place continues plunging down a steep slope of decline: Pulaski Highway. No one seems to care.
Prostitutes have become ever more bold along the artery, servicing their clients at some of the no-tell motels that straddle the city-county boundary. A county police officer narrowly escaped death last Halloween night after he was shot in the chest while making a traffic stop in Rosedale. Drunken driving is a chronic problem. And while many legitimate businesses operate along the commercial strip, the fly-by-night operations or tasteless presentations of others degrade the area.
But eastern Baltimore County seems oblivious to the ugliness of Pulaski. Interestingly, county officials are designing remedies to revitalize older retail areas and to trim back on the number of business signs that grow like weeds along commercial corridors, but politicians name virtually every inner Beltway community and commercial strip but Pulaski Highway when discussing such legislation.
Some neighborhood leaders notice the problem, but the community as a whole -- and surely its leaders -- are either content with or overwhelmed by the state of decline. (Although Baltimore is moving to shutter a few suspected prostitution haunts, the situation is as bad there. When residents of the city's Armistead Gardens began picketing a new adult outlet store on Pulaski last year, their protests fell largely on deaf ears, as if they should simply accept the area's seamy trades.)
As the state and city continue to press for the dismantling of Baltimore's strip-club district known as The Block, with salvos such as last month's massive police raid, it is not an unreasonable assumption that such businesses will relocate to friendlier confines. If Baltimore County and city officials don't turn more attention to Pulaski Highway, they may wind up with a worse problem down the road -- down that road.