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Dark clouds on horizon in sunny suburbs


The guy on the street asks for a little spare change or every last cent I can get my hands on, whichever seems appropriate. Such things happen. Only this time, the street is York Road just below the Beltway, where such things never used to happen and now, in one little stretch, they happen twice.

"Wipe your windshield?" this guy says.

He has stringy blond hair that looks unwashed since maybe the Ford administration. He's wearing a heavy Army jacket on this miserably muggy afternoon, simultaneously hinting at previous military service, subsequent emotional problems, or maybe both.

My first instinct is to tell him he took a wrong turn, he's in the wrong neighborhood, everybody knows he's supposed to be down there in the city where we expect such sights as part of the natural urban charm.

"I could do some work," he says, though he's a little vague and unenthusiastic about it.

He could come to my house. He hints at yard work or painting. He's not a bum, he's just down on his luck, and he's even gone to the trouble of making a little sign, which he carries with him, black lettering on a piece of brown cardboard that announces he will work for money.

No, I will not be bringing him to my house for a little yard work. Which is exactly his point. Give him a little change here, or every cent I can scrounge up to avoid feeling guilty, and he'll stay out of my neighborhood and my life and maybe even my consciousness.

Wonderful. We now arrive at a point where we have to drive into the city to escape the troubles of suburbia.

In Baltimore County these days, we hear much talk of troubles. The operative phrase is "increasing urbanization," by which the talkers mention those things once seen as strictly city problems that now begin to stretch beyond previous borders.

The county executive, Dutch Ruppersberger, worries about aging neighborhoods deteriorating and not enough money to give them necessary face lifts. He talks of new arrivals with not much money but with lots of social problems brand new to the county. The old migration patterns have changed now, with middle class people leaving the city and hopscotching all the way to Howard, Harford and Carroll counties, which are perceived as safer than Baltimore County, at least for the moment. Thus, the hopscotching becomes a way of buying time, until. Until when?

Meanwhile, the county school superintendent, Stuart Berger, talks of increasing fears of violence. A new report cites "disrespect toward adults and peers exhibited by a large segment of Baltimore County's student body," and "violence, which is exhibited by a small percentage of the student body but creates significant upheaval within the system."

And the county police note that first-quarter crime is up over last year. These things are subject to various whims, of course. A year ago, the winter was such a mess that even criminals stayed indoors; this winter, relatively balmy, they hit the streets again.

In 1994, there were 31 homicides in Baltimore County, 281 rapes, 2,165 robberies, 4,711 aggravated assaults, 6,256 vehicle thefts. By city standards, this would be cause for rejoicing. By the historic standards of the county, it makes people edgy who once imagined themselves sealed them off from such concerns.

But the city and county begin to resemble versions of each other at different stages of social disrepair. Yes, the city's problems still dwarf the county's. Yes, the county's still a swell place to raise a family, to send the kids to a decent school.

It's just that there are little, unsettling glimpses on the horizon. Those guys out on York Road are a piece of it, the one guy just below the Beltway, the other not far beyond it. The second guy's not dressed too badly. He's polite. He's soft-spoken. He's just out of work, and out of money, and he's not too proud to beg for somebody else's.

Not so long ago, you didn't see such folks out in the suburbs. What people forget is that, until the past decade, you didn't see so many of them in the city, either. They weren't waiting for you at street lights. They didn't have such a public profile, such a lack of public shame.

In the city, they're beyond that now. In the county, they used to imagine the city was another world. Those worlds are merging, and the poor souls on York Road are just a hint of tomorrow.

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