EDGEWOOD,MD. - From the stoop of her comfortable suburban home, Mary Alexander looks at her new world, one replete with chirping birds, friendly neighbors and tidy lawns.
"I feel like I'm in God's country," says Alexander, who said goodbye to Baltimore in September after living there since birth and working for the past decade as a 7-Eleven cashier.
Now 62, she lives with her son in the $180,000 house he bought outside Edgewood, on the eastern edge of Harford County. Sure, she knows there is a presidential election coming up. But what could any politician possibly do to make her life happier?
"As far as I'm concerned," she says, "let's just keep things going the way they are."
So it is in this county, where new housing developments are spreading across untouched woodlands like fast-moving lava. Every new home built gives birth to a dream of amenities once taken for granted, but that have become hard to come by in many places - quiet streets, good schools and the confidence to leave the front door unlocked.
Securing the good life is such an obsession with residents of America's new suburbia - these outer-orbit communities - that they aren't paying much attention to what national leaders are up to. There is a disconnect from Washington. Voters here speak of the federal government as a waste of time, irrelevant, unable to tackle the issues that matter.
It's neither apathy nor anger, people say. While small-business owners worry about surviving in the face of competition from Wal-Mart and Home Depot, they don't see the federal government as having a role in helping them. Parents worry about making sure their children are covered by medical insurance but don't see elected officials ever ending their debate and forging a solution.
The entrenched belief: Politicians are beholden to those with money and just not interested in making sure kids in Harford County learn well in school or that residents keep their jobs.
It's the view of Patrick Stinnett, a father of three who bought a house six years ago near Bel Air and works in Baltimore as a chemical engineer.
How can the government say it is reforming education, he wonders, when his son's elementary school was so crowded that it had portable classrooms as soon as it opened in 1997? How can Washington say it cares about his job at FMC Corp., when improving trade relations with China could one day mean that the chemical company finds cheaper labor abroad?
"If I were FMC, I'd move," says Stinnett. "And as far as the trade agreements go, people had no vote."
'A dream come true'
Eugene Pearson, 33, grew up near Patterson Park in East Baltimore. He bought his first house two years ago for $128,000 in Edgewood's Harbor Oaks development, where streets have names such as Pintail Court, Sweet Bay Drive and Shelter Cove.
"After working in the city, I just wanted an area where I could come home and it's peaceful," says Pearson, manager of a janitorial services business, who lives with his wife and four stepchildren on Ebbtide Drive.
He says the curriculum in the Edgewood public schools seems challenging, his business hasn't been beset by new taxes in the past four years, and that no issues matter more than those.
"This is like a dream come true," he says while walking his dog. "We don't have too many problems out here."
Not that folks here ignore hot-button national topics. They are informed and have viewpoints. They just don't see Washington as a problem-solver.
At Jo Momma's, a steak and seafood house in Edgewood, owner Jeff Gordon, a resident of Northeast Baltimore until moving to Harford two years ago, says guns should not be so widely available. But he says he no longer pays attention to debates on gun control.
"Some of the bills they pass?" he says, shaking his head. "Well, assault weapons are still available. And what in the world does someone need an assault weapon for?"
Gordon, 43, fulfilled a lifelong dream when he opened his first business, launching the restaurant in May with the help of a $150,000 loan from the Small Business Administration. Aside from receiving that check, though, Gordon says he doesn't bother with Washington. He's more interested in how his mutual funds are performing, making certain that local schools remain as good as advertised when he moved to Bel Air, and serving fresh blue crabs.
"I'm happy with the way things are going," Gordon says, denying any serious interest in politics. "I'm too busy with my kids."
It is no surprise that as city-dwellers seek to move, they are now forced to look farther out to places such as Harford County, since closer suburbs have become costlier and heavily populated. Census data show that the percentage of U.S. citizens living in suburbs of major cities doubled between 1950 and 1990, to 46 percent.
From 1990 to 1998, suburbs grew in population by 12.8 percent. From March 1998 to March 1999 alone, American suburbs grew by 3.3 million people, explaining why a "new suburbia" is blossoming in places like Harford that were long spared intense development.
A fear common to many in Harford is that the problems of the city that they left behind might follow them to the suburbs. Tops on their list of concerns is drugs, a growing problem in suburban communities nationwide.
"We have a serious drug problem in Harford County, but instead of seeing dealers standing on street corners, they're dealing out of their houses," says Bob Maivelett, 45, who commutes each day to Hunt Valley, where he drives a truck for Airborne Express. "How many more millions of dollars is the government going to say we have to spend? If we really wanted to stop drugs, we could do it in a couple years."
A father of four who earns $730 a week, Maivelett is a registered Democrat who last voted in 1988 for George Bush because he liked the Republican's "No new taxes" pledge. He says he's disillusioned with politics and that Jimmy Carter was the last president who cared about "doing good for the American people."
"What is D.C.?" asks Maivelett. "Monuments. A place to go visit. The Smithsonian and the zoo. It's almost like a damn country club for our politicians, and we only hear from them at election time."
Once an oasis
Mary Ann Manly, a school nurse in Baltimore, moved to Bel Air seven years ago and purchased a $215,000 new home with more space for her two children. She has grown alarmed by change and is baffled that she now has to urge her daughter, 18, to lock the car doors as soon as she settles in the driver's seat. After all, there was a carjacking recently in a park up the street.
"This area has been an oasis shielded from crime and drugs, but it's coming," she says. "You used to read the police blotter and it was so-and-so's trash cans were stolen. Now, its drugs, breaking and entering, big crime."
Manly, who reserves a spot on the refrigerator for the posting of good grades, says she's active in urging local officials to fight crime, drugs and other evils. She's tuned out Washington altogether.
"I'm just glad Elian went home," she says. "All that time and effort? I mean, build a school. Do something."
The population in Harford County has increased by 49 percent since 1980, according to the census, and the area seems to be growing as fast as ever. Last year, more than 2,000 new housing units were approved for construction for the first time in six years.
Once-thriving small communities have seen retail business shift to their fringes, with many defined less by what stores are along Main Street and more by what fast-food restaurants or video stores happen to be on the swath of U.S. 40 that passes through town. Bel Air's downtown is fairly bustling, for example, but Edgewood's is more deserted and the county has begun a revitalization effort.
In both communities, housing developments and businesses are sprouting so fast that residents are stunned to see fields or woods they tromped on just months ago under attack by construction crews. The development rush is straining small-business owners, many of whom say they have given up on government ever helping them.
Gene Di Pasquale, owner of Trophy World in Aberdeen, which engraves awards for local firefighting heroes or a golfer who nails a hole-in-one at an area course, says he's lost faith that federal policies might rescue mom-and-pop stores from unfair competition or make college education affordable for the middle class.
Di Pasquale says he's sick of big business reaping benefits from government while other Americans suffer.
"We all have to get emissions tests, but then there's some company pumping pollution into the air and paying Congress to look the other way. We go through the trouble of having something stuck up our muffler and the Exxon Val- dez gets a slap on the wrist."
Some remember Harford County two decades ago as open fields speckled with small towns and miss the way it was. But Vernon W. Brown Sr., the first black to move into an area of southern Aberdeen, sees development as an emblem of progress. In 1959, whites circulated a petition to prevent him from moving in near them.
"There were two places I could go: the filling station and the grocery store," says Brown, 73. "That's why I tell you things are good today. The country is in better shape than it's ever been. The wheel of progress is going forward."
But Brown, too, voices doubts about government. "They aren't worrying about the ordinary man. This is a rich man's country. If I did something like O. J. and I didn't have the money for good lawyers, I'd be automatically guilty."
Living his own life
Along the main drag in the county seat of Bel Air is The Fine Grind, an espresso bar and hangout for the town's gossipy lunch crowd. If any spot would be home to rollicking conversations about politics and scandal, this is it. Owner Dave Wolff keeps a dictionary and thesaurus on the counter for patrons addicted to their morning crossword puzzles. They just don't care to talk about government or elections.
That doesn't bother Wolff, 47, who's happy serving egg sandwiches and lattes after working for years as a building manager in Baltimore. "I'm at a point in my life where I'm busy living it," Wolff says. "If politics is running well, you shouldn't have to be involved."
But Wolff is worried about medical insurance, miffed that Congress is still squabbling over how to cover more Americans. "Old people don't have prescription plans and they're filibustering," he says disgustedly.
Wolff says he can't afford the $600 a month it costs to cover his family. "I'd rather take the $600 a month, put it in a savings account and be my own insurer," he says.
Pass the potatoes
In a place where simple pleasures are valued, many worry that kids are growing up without high morals and a proper work ethic. Michael DiCarlo, a 41-year-old father of four and owner of Big Al's Bar & Grill on U.S. 40, remembers his childhood in Rosedale, playing kickball with friends on summer days, jumping in the pool, then going inside for "pass-the-mashed potatoes" dinners with parents.
"People need to go back to more family dinners at the house," he says. "Don't buy your daughter a car when she turns 16. Then you'll know where she is. I don't know what the answer is. I just want to keep my kids closer."
He says the answer certainly isn't to be found in any laws the government could pass or examples it could set. "I've never felt connected to D.C., we're so far removed," he says.
And he isn't paying attention to the 2000 race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. "I'm sure they're great guys. I'm sure they think they can make a difference. I wish them the best of luck."
Listening to the New America
Friday: New York's financial district is ground zero for America's new golden age, as a gusher of wealth makes dreams, breaks them and calls the faithful back for more.
July 23: Some older Americans enjoy an active, engaged retirement - and the financial freedom to look beyond their own needs to more public-spirited concerns.
July 24: Many blue-collar workers are struggling to find their place in an American economy turned topsy-turvy by technology.
July 26: How do members of the new black economic elite view the future for themselves, their children and the nation?