To the outside world, Prince George's is a county wracked by unbridled development, populated by not-too-affluent blacks and whites, and torn by crime and racial tension.
While this view exaggerates the county's problems, it has some basis in fact. The same heterogeneous quality that makes Prince George's microcosm of the United States also makes it a battleground of the social and economic conflicts that trouble the country at large.
That is why, political showboating aside, seldom does a month go by when school board or county officials do not engage in political battle. They fight over busing, housing policy, cable television rights, the management of waste and affirmative action -- because Prince Georgians are different from one another.
Consensus positions do not just evolve, but require the politicians to roll up their sleeves, scream at each other a bit and hammer out less-than-perfect compromises.
County officials now are wrestling with three problems that probably will have major impact on the shape of things to come in Prince George's. They are post-boom development policy; TRIM (the 1978 charter amendment that limits the country's property tax revenues) and race relations.
On all three fronts, this social and economic mosaic of a county fights battles with conflicting impulses against an enemy that is not always discernible.
During the boom years of the 1960s, when commercial and residential development stamped through this once-rural tobacco country, the choices were simpler and county commissioners opted for a development policy that encouraged runaway growth.
Now the county finds itself laden with strip commercial development and an excess of apartment buildings that many agree were built by developers interested only in making a fast buck.
Both former county executive Winfield Kelly and present County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan have since tried to enact a housing policy that encourages the construction of single-family dwellings and townhouses to attract upper-income buyers.
"I think that everyone would admit that there has always been a bias against apartments because the residents don't pay back in taxes what it takes to furnish schools, police and fire protection," said County Council administrator Samuel Wynkoop. "I would also say that racial considerations have played a role."
While no one has opposed the effort to bring high-priced housing into Prince George's, leaders of the black community and some County Council members have argued that such a policy should not exclude the construction of additional low and moderate-income housing.
"Prince George's County is big enough for all types of homes," said state Sen. Tommy Broadwater (D-25), who is black."I agree we need to attract more upper-income residents, but you know, poor people need housing too." Broadwater and other black leaders stress that the best solution to the county's development dilemma would be to encourage the building of housing that accomodates a mixture of economic classes.
"The only problem with the mixed-housing strategy is that it all depends upon what the developers want to do," said black County Council member Floyd Wilson. "I'm not really sure the county could or should try and legislate a policy like this."
For this reason, the housing policy that will probably determine the future direction of development in Prince George's will be shaped largely by the private business market. And developers probably will base their decisions about what can be built now in Prince George's on what has been built in the past.
The county's tax-limiting charter amendment, TRIM also will have a great influence on the future of Prince George's
On the one hand, TRIM already has begun to reduce the unusually heavy property tax burden under which county residents labored for so long. However, it may also restrict the county's ability to provide the public-service infrastructer needed for future development.
School officials already are complaining that they have little money to spend on experimental programs that could improve the education of the county's increasingly diverse student body.
Moreover, many officeholders believe the state may pull the rug out from under the county by reducing budget subsidies.
"I don't think the state is going to come around every year to bail us out," said council member Frank Casula. "Eventually we'll have to pay the price for having TRIM."
Finally, it will be interesting to watch the evolution of race relations in Prince George's. The black population has grown from 10 percent to 35 percent in the last 1o years, and all evidence indicates that trend will continue.
While Prince George's has had more than its share of Ku Klux Klan cross-burnings and police brutality cases, it seems on the way to improving race relations. Though there are still many problems, black leaders believe the county has slowly begun to change its ways.
"I think we have come a long way," said council member Floyd Wilson. "There is still a lot of racial prejudice in certain parts of the county, but I would have to say that things have quited down in the last year and people are beginning to cooperate more across racial lines."
The police department, which still has no high-ranking black officers, has begun to recruit more black patrolmen, tried to sensitize white officers by giving them racial awareness classes and opened offices in black communities in an effort to improve relations.
Blacks are poorly represented in political office, however, with only two blacks on the 11-member County Council. One on the nine-member school board and three in the 32-member legislative delegation. County government offices have only a sprinking of black employes.
Council member Wilson also notes, "I still think the criminal justice system is biased against blacks. Blacks are arrested quicker, have a harder time getting bond and get longer sentences. We still have some real problem to deal with.
For all its problems with race, though, the county appears to be realizing that with its growing black population, it will have to deal more squarely with the question. And many believe that the young black middle-class families now moving into the county will play a major role in any such discourse.
"The newcomers could be the bridge between the black and white communities in Prince George's," said retiring County Concil member Francis B. Francois. "When they turn their attention to Prince George's, they could help to build a new future for this county."
Come what may, though those who watch the crazy goings-on, as this county wrestles with its future, can be assured that there will never be a dull moment, and that Prince George's will stay in the news.