'Moment of Truth' in Essex


It is no coincidence that Baltimore County's new Office of Community Conservation chose the Essex-Middle River area as its first major project. While the county faces challenges in aging urban communities all around the Beltway, nowhere are the problems so dire as in Essex and Middle River.

As local County Councilman Vincent Gardina observed, the area has reached its "moment of truth." For proof of the decline to date, see the community conservation office's 23-page report on the area. The report notes the:

* Inordinately high numbers of reported crimes and arrests in 1994, many of them linked to the illegal trades of drug dealing and prostitution.

* Consistently high turnover at local elementary schools, strongly suggesting that the transience of local students is a key cause of below-average achievement in math, reading and attendance.

* Aging housing stock that could turn into poorly maintained rental properties -- the sort of hotbeds for blight and crime already too common.

By and large, the struggles of Baltimore County's eastside run parallel to the travails of the heavy manufacturing industry that had long guaranteed lifetime jobs to the area's residents. No more are there unlimited work opportunities for people of limited education at the Glenn L. Martin Co., Bethlehem Steel and other blue-collar giants. When these reliable sources of employment began to dry up, so did the life's blood of once-vital communities.

The forces behind these economic changes did not originate in eastern Baltimore County; indeed, they are international. But that doesn't mean local officials and citizens can't fight back. The county has made a start by designating more than $1 million this year for the revitalization of Essex and Middle River, and by proposing a section of the eastside as the jurisdiction's first enterprise zone. Also, resident groups have shown their concern by their considerable contributions to the study sponsored by the community conservation office.

The expected result of the study, which will go to the county planning board early next year and then into public hearings, is a roster of recommended moves for saving the area -- presumably to include methods for training residents accustomed to a 1950s economy so they are prepared for a 21st century economy. Given the existing problems in Essex and Middle River, both the county government and citizen groups must make sure the recommendations are acted on swiftly.

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