Howard countians listen to a plea for cities


WHEN DAVID RUSK brought his provocative ideas to Columbia, the crowd didn't boo or jeer. Clearly, this is not Dundalk.

The audience of 110 filling a large classroom at the Johns Hopkins University School of Continuing Studies in Columbia listened intently to the urbanologist. No, the planners, public officials and other residents in attendance did not embrace all of Mr. Rusk's ideas, but they gave his thoughts on relieving urban poverty a fair hearing.

That alone was a victory.

Ideas on moving the poor to suburban areas have met heated opposition and hostility in eastern Baltimore County communities. Legislators played to their constituents' fears in opposing the Moving to Opportunity program and an American Civil Liberties Union effort to distribute poverty more evenly throughout the region.

That was not the reaction in Columbia, which has lost some of its youthful idealism, but still can listen to new ideas.

The attendants listened to Mr. Rusk, the author of "Baltimore Unbound," as he continued his mission to reduce what he calls the "critical mass" of poverty he says is driving city neighborhoods toward doom. His solution is a regional approach to relieving an urban problem that many suburbanites would rather ignore as long as it remains miles from their doorsteps.

It's a tough sell, even for a progressive Columbia crowd.

Urban blight is the catalyst that scattered some of them and other former city residents into the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington. It is an exodus fueled by both black and white families. The U.S. Census Bureau reported earlier this month that Baltimore's white population declined by almost 40,000 from 1990 to 1994 and that 14,000 African-American families moved out of the city during that period.

In Howard County, middle-class families have found communities where poverty either exists in small pockets or is virtually invisible in the cul-de-sacs.

Howard has a smaller percentage of poor people than any jurisdiction in the region. The county's 3.1 percent poverty rate is well below the region's 10.1 percent rate. Columbia's rate is 3.4 percent.

These statistics certainly weren't meant to be a source of pride for Howard. Au contraire. Mr. Rusk delicately suggested that the county had not shouldered its load of the region's poverty.

Using an overhead projector, he showed the percentage of poverty in Baltimore, its surrounding counties and Columbia in one column and a "fair share index" for each of those places in another. His index indicated that Baltimore has twice its fair share of poverty while everyone else has less than it should. Howard was at rock bottom.

Mr. Rusk deftly peppered his talk with praise for Columbia's past deeds, building neighborhoods integrated by race and socioeconomic status.

"You're awfully good, and you deserve a lot of credit," he said at one point.

But he gently implored Columbia and Howard County to do more while a regional or statewide cure to poverty is sought.

Mr. Rusk advocates a public policy revolution he believes would end poverty as we know it -- by sprinkling thousands more poor families throughout the metropolitan area and gentrifying abandoned urban neighborhoods.

The Montgomery model

He likes the housing policies of Montgomery County, which requires developers of new communities of 50 or more housing units to reserve 10 percent of homes for families earning $35,000 a year or less and 5 percent for public housing. He also praised a regional approach used by the Portland, Ore., metropolitan area, which sought to suppress suburban sprawl.

Through his talk, the audience listened calmly to the eloquent speaker whose dark suit and starched shirt made him look more like a corporate executive than an expert on urban poverty. He provoked thoughtful discussion, but questions and comments made it apparent that not everyone bought his ideas.

Some of his answers failed to persuade. Will gentrification really help city schools? Will middle-class families even want to move back into city neighborhoods where drive-by shootings are reported on nightly newscasts? Will city children succeed in a foreign environment? Can people without cars get to jobs in a county with so few bus lines that they are identified by a color code? And, most important, how is Baltimore's poverty relevant to Columbians?

His answer to the last question was not based largely on self-interest. Suburbanites ought to be concerned about sprawl, dTC he said, but mostly he appealed to his audience's humanity.

"Revitalize the spirit of Columbia a notch or so and spread it to the rest of the county and to your state delegation," he said.

It would be asking too much for Howard County to immediately absorb the Rusk index "fair share" of poverty. But county residents are fair-minded enough to convince lawmakers that a policy similar to Montgomery's would help poor families without compromising the quality of life here.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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