Tuesday, December 23, 2008

my desert

Although a localist at heart, I hail from the wilds of suburbia. Actually, I'm not sure exactly what to call the place where I live--a half-baked new-urbanist development in an unincorporated town. This is where I must struggle for salvation.

First, the neighborhood: Stacked townhouses (one two-story on top of another) in unnaturally long and narrow rows. To call it a "block" would be generous--it is wide enough to accommodate the dwellings, and nothing faces either end. The "alley," where the cars and garages supposedly hide, is as wide as the road and serves as the "view" from our balconies. The zoning is supposedly mixed-use, but so far that means townhouses, elevator condos, and one lonely little commercial building that houses an eye care shop. In their defense, the development was planned during the housing bubble and has been delivered during and after the pop. But nothing that I've seen gives much hope that even the original design really met new urbanist ideals. Maybe one day it will get there, but in the meantime, we're left with the existing surroundings.

The development sits at a busy intersection without crosswalks or pedestrian signals. There is a plaza across the street, if you don't mind dashing through traffic to get there. It has a chain grocery store, a chain drug store, a large liquor store, a dollar store, a pool supply store (that should come in handy), a hair salon, a cell phone store, a Chinese restaurant, a Pizza Hut with crummy dine-in service, and maybe a few other odds and ends. From my standpoint, the most useful of the bunch is the liquor store, which thankfully carries local beer. That's just about the high point in this account. Beyond the plaza there's a seasonal ice cream stand (another plus), a place where you can buy ice 24 hrs/day, and one of several low-end motels in the area. You'll have to stay on the other side of Rt. 1, though, when you come for a visit, if you want a red, heart-shaped jacuzzi.

If you brave the dash across Rt. 1, there are a couple of gas stations, a bank, more motels, McDonald's, Burger King, a Taco Bell/KFC, and a strip mall with a dentist office, a nail salon, a place that does bail bonds, and a Caribbean grocery. Adjacent to the development, there's some kind of factory, a Subway restaurant, a tattoo parlor, a currently Mexican restaurant, and a nursery/farmer's market. The last is another bonus, since it appears that we can actually buy locally grown produce. On the side of the development that's away from the intersection, there's a middle school and an elementary school. There's no safe way to walk to them along the road, but a stairway further back in the development provides access to the ball fields, so it should be possible for the kids to walk to school when they're old enough.

Further up Rt. 1, there's a mess of expressways with some scattered businesses. Down the other way, there's a public library but otherwise not too much useful within biking distance. (As for walking, there's some sidewalk on one side of the road, but without good places to cross, that's of minimal use.) Past the schools is the I-95 underpass and mostly residential neighborhoods on the side streets. On the far side of I-95 is another rare gem--the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cemetery, also known by its previous name of Cathedral Gardens. Holy Trinity Church is actually in downtown Baltimore, but there's a small chapel here on the grounds, as well as picnic facilities. (Holy Cross uses some of the cemetery space and usually has at least one picnic there each year, which is how I discovered it.) They serve vigil there all but the first Saturday of each month, so it's in that sense the closest Orthodox church to where I live. Unfortunately, man does not live by vigil alone, so I'm torn between going one place for vigil (and thereby taking time away from my life at Holy Cross) and another for other services, or traveling out of town for everything.

I've read that Elkridge is the oldest settlement in Howard County. It's barely that, bounded on one side by Anne Arundel County and on another by Baltimore County. The original name was Elk Ridge Landing. The ridge is supposed to be somewhere to the west; the landing refers to days when it was the second busiest sea port in Maryland. Tobacco growers would roll their casks (down Rolling Rd., of course) to the Landing, which was the furthest navigable point inland on the Patapsco River. I've mentioned elsewhere that Elkridge sits on the Fall Line, where the outer Piedmont hills drop down to meet the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Any rivers that cross this line would produce waterfalls and rapids. Later it became something of a little steel town, when there was actually an Elkridge Furnace (now there's just an inn that bears the name). The railroad was important here in its time. Elkridge's most famous landmark is still the Thomas Viaduct, which I think is the longest curved stone railroad bridge.

Today it's still defined by transportation routes, but somewhat differently. Silting has rendered the Patapsco too shallow for ships to navigate, and even the commuter rail station here was closed in favor of the car-friendly Dorsey station at Rt. 100. You can still hear the trains go by, and there's a place I know where you could easily jump a slow-moving freight. But these days the most influential transportation is by road. Rt. 1 is still a north-south alternate between Washington and Baltimore. The 895 interchange takes traffic around Baltimore to the east. A bit further up you can get on 195 toward BWI Airport or 695, the Baltimore Beltway. A lot of trucking comes through here, which I suppose explains all the cheap motels.

Rt. 1 is the source of most of Elkridge's growth, but it is also the bane of its community life. It is too fast and too wide for anything but car through-travel. There are few alternate routes to get anywhere, and most of the residential neighborhoods end up as isolated enclaves, accessible only by car. There is something called "Main St.," or I should say, two somethings. They're divided by train tracks, with a concrete barrier to prevent crossing. I'm not entirely sure how they got the name "Main St."--maybe there was more going on years and years ago, but right now they look like they've been mostly residential. And that's pretty much the story around here--once you get off of Rt. 1, there's not much commercial fabric--some industrial parks, some newer shopping plazas, but no real walkable community services. You need a rebellious streak or the necessity of poverty to survive around here without a car.

Needless to say, the community can hardly sustain jobs for all of its residents. So, many of us commute elsewhere. My best hopes are either to work from home as much as possible or to find a job in Baltimore. There's a commuter bus that stops across the street and runs downtown (or at least, there is as long as we can keep MTA from axing the route). Even biking to work in Baltimore would be feasible. I'd much rather work in Elkridge, but given the realistic options, Baltimore's a better option than DC. Of course, most of the Federal jobs are in DC, so my chances are slim.

This is where we live. We didn't really pick the location; it's just what we've been given and what we have to deal with. It's better than some places, worse than others. God is here as much as anywhere else, and for the foreseeable future we're here. Beyond that, what is there but to live life as it comes?


  1. A long-standing dream of mine to have unwelcome guests call to visit and give me the opportunity to put them up at that motel with the red, heart-shaped baths. What sweet revenge.

  2. Trevor, Matt O here. I saw you started blogging from facebooks. I, having more time than the more responsible members of society, often frequent blogs and whatnot. I like interacting on the Internet because I don't have to deal with bloomin' interruptions from folks. So here I am. I also can't resist posting a comment when no one else has done so. The open canvess propels me.

    Can I make some suggestions for your blog name?

    1) Breaking the Silence
    2) Interrupting the Silence
    3) The Loquacious Hesychast (no personal offense towards you, but there is some humor in that title)
    4) Words between prayers and laments.

    You would think that I would start my own blog with all these ideas. I am more interested in talking to actual people than anonymous souls (potential people) that 'might be reading', so I get more enjoyment from answering blogs, where actual people are reading. I have about 3 or 4 or so at this point that I regularly visit. I might put you on the list of those I read and comment on, unless you prove too depressing and not responsive to admonishment to turn around. :-D

    We still hope to go with you and Julie to an Orthodox service, hopefully in the not so distant future. We are currently sick with seasonal stuff and under general holiday malaise.

    Later on and good Christmas to you all,