Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

All not 'paradise' in Howard County Suburbia: After World War II, Baltimoreans began moving west along U.S. 40. Rapid growth and big-city problems followed them.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The commuters roaring past on U.S. 40 would never spot it. The minivans full of kids and soccer balls zoom right by. And the developers? They might see only strip malls waiting to be built.

But Don Harrison, retired engineer, self-styled naturalist and old-timer, knows where to find the 2-foot-tall marble marker chiseled with its cryptic, outdated message: "14 M To B."

"B" is Baltimore. And "14 M" is 14 miles. To Harrison, it's a quaint reminder of what Howard County once was - beautiful, rural, a long way from the city.

Out here in the suburbs, where people try to escape urban ills, you still hear much talk of big-city problems, of crime, traffic and constant rush. Of farmland disappearing. Of a paradise lost.

"Across the street was fields and just a few little buildings. Now it's a shopping center," says Harrison as he sits in his four-bedroom brick rancher, a hundred feet from U.S. 40. "I can't get out of my driveway in the morning. I grew up in this county, and I think this county has pimped itself to development."

Harrison and his wife, Donna, see the consequences all around them. There are obvious problems such as the robberies on U.S. 40's commercial strip, and the traffic that has become burdensome and dangerous.

Then there are more subtle problems: People buy big, new homes with giant mortgages they can't afford unless both parents work. Their children grow up surly and disrespectful, cut through the Harrisons' yard, and smoke and drink under their trees.

"They do whatever they want to do because no one's supervising. They're raising themselves," says Donna Harrison.

"We are the dinosaurs," Don Harrison says, "but we didn't have these problems as dinosaurs."

Continuing exodus

After World War II, the first wave of Baltimoreans moved west out U.S. 40, past Catonsville and into Howard County.

The exodus has continued ever since, in increasingly wealthy and conservative waves, making this an affluent stretch in the nation's sixth-richest county.

Now, about 20,000 people live in the corridor, many in planned communities with cul-de-sacs, look-alike homes and wide roads traveled by late-model minivans. In the fall, their children will go to good public schools or pricey private ones.

In short, this is a place where the American Dream lives on.

Cynthia Williams, born of a blue-collar Baltimore family, moved to the community of Valley Meade, just off U.S. 40, in 1965. She was 18, newly married and astonished to be moving into the country, and so far from the city.

"This was more than I ever dreamed of in my whole life," Williams says 31 years later as she stands in her shady, brick home with a well-groomed lawn. "I guess in those days, life was boring because you did the same thing everyday. But we were happy because we didn't know any better."

Since then, she has watched the world grow more complex and troubled as premarital sex became more common, liberal ideas took over schools and respect for man and God waned.

Williams, a born-again Christian, finds strength in religion, but she says the new suburbanites seek only money, cars and huge homes - at the expense of the deeper joys of faith and family.

"We may be economically better, but our children are not better," Williams says. "They're not really happy. They're not at peace with themselves. And I think that's sad."

Marianne Becker, a psychotherapist living in The Oaks community near Patapsco Valley State Park, sees the consequences in her young clients.

"I just see so many stressed out kids," she says. "I have suicidal teen-agers who are clients. They're suicidal, and their mothers are out working full time, so where's the safety net?"

Becker tried to work full-time when she first became a mother. Now she works two evenings and one day a week so she can spend more time with her two children, ages 9 and 11.

"They needed more care-taking. They needed social exposure and time with their mother," Becker says. "We had no leisure time, no quality time."

Worries about crime

Across the street, Dave Ratajski stands in his driveway dressed in shorts and a blue polo shirt. A cup of coffee is in his hand. His blue-eyed husky, Ashley, is by his side. It is 10:30 on a weekday morning, and this one-time banker is relaxing at home after dropping off his children at camp.

Ratajski, at 50, hasn't retired, but five years ago he traded the corporate world for a couple of part-time home businesses. In the deal, he got to coach his son's Little League baseball and basketball teams. And he has rediscovered the ultimate suburban reward: the barbecue.

"I'm home now, so I can crank up the barbecue at 5:30, 6 o'clock. Before it was 7:30, 8 o'clock and more of a problem," he says, smiling at the transformation. "I'm a house dad."

He is bullish on the economy, the country, even his neighborhood, but he worries about the crime and traffic on U.S. 40. The entrance to The Oaks is a few hundred feet beyond the crest of a hill.

As for crime, Rataj-ski says, "The Route 40 corridor is becoming a very crime-ridden strip, at least comparatively to where it was 10 years ago."

Howard County police say the neighborhoods remain nearly as safe as decades ago. Last year, the area had not a single homicide, but crime is increasing along U.S. 40 as robbers feast on restaurants, banks and convenience stores that now line the highway.

Shanti Ramesh, a physician who works in a tough East Baltimore neighborhood, comes home to an elegant home in Turf Valley Overlook, a golf-course community that is perhaps the plushest neighborhood in the corridor.

Yet she's afraid to get groceries or a video at night. "Ellicott City used to be a nice, quiet place," Ramesh says, "but 10 o'clock in the morning, the Signet Bank down here was robbed."

Again, it's U.S. 40 - the community's lifeline to the outside world - that Ramesh blames for the crime: "Just a matter of time, it's going to be everywhere."

Don Wood, who lives nearby with his wife and two children, also worries about crime but has a different solution - a 9 mm gun.

"Do I own a handgun?" Wood asks as his daughter, Amanda, 8, plays nearby. "Absolutely. Am I ready to use it? Absolutely."

A moment later, he adds, "I feel safe here right now. Five years from now, that could change. If we don't put our arms around [crime] and really control it, it will continue to escalate."

His next-door neighbor Harold Richardson moved his family to Turf Valley Overlook nine years ago to escape the crime in their Baltimore neighborhood. He no longer worries that his car will be stolen but warns, "I do think it's going to hit out here eventually."

Mike and Mary Martin know all about big-city crime, too. They moved out to the suburbs, from Baltimore, when a friend - a real estate agent showing a nearby home - was murdered.

To the Martins, crime is just one symptom of larger problems.

They see a government that hands out money to people who don't work, then drowns the people who want to start their own businesses in paperwork and rules. They see a government that - in the failed model of communism - values redistribution of wealth over freedom.

"What really built our country is freedom, and now the freedom I think is being abused," says Mary Martin. "[Government] is replacing family, extended family, churches, faith. All of those things that build a strong society."

A moment later, her husband adds, "Of the people, by the people, for the people. We don't think [the government] is any of those."

Burdened by bureaucrats

The communities along U.S. 40 long have had a conservative streak, perhaps because of the high taxes on their homes. Even decades ago, when Democrats outnumbered Republicans 2-to-1, this corridor usually supported Republicans for president.

Current feelings go beyond policy disagreements. Many say they feel burdened by a government bloated by bureaucrats and career politicians. They say the steady drip of scandal in the Clinton administration has corroded the goodwill they once felt toward their president, and though suburbanites are better off than most, they say they have succeeded in spite of - not because of - government.

"I don't feel like anybody is really looking out for the good of the country as a whole. It's what's good for the Republican Party or good for the Democratic Party," says Jonnie Widener, a part-time nurse raising two children with her husband in Turf Valley Overlook.

"You used to have politicians where you felt like they were statesmen," she says. "We don't have too many statesmen any more."

The most persistent criticism of the federal government is irrelevance. Few give the government credit for an economy that's performing well. Most accept that their biggest worries - traffic, crime, an economy that forces both parents to work - are beyond the government's control.

They just wish they could finally escape to a place where the problems wouldn't follow. "Do you then move out further and further, and have an hour-and-a-half drive to work?" asks Wood. "That's crazy."

The Harrisons, however, intend to do just that. Their home is so close to U.S. 40 that they figure a developer will buy it up for a McDonald's or shopping plaza. And when that happens, they're off to West Virginia or Pennsylvania to rediscover the simple life that their corner of Howard County has lost.

"How long before this is under asphalt and cement?" asks Don Harrison as he walks through his back yard, proudly showing off the acre of earth he has long called home. "How long before they cut down the 50-year-old pecan trees so they can park a car?"

Pub Date: 8/04/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
54°