At dusk, the black teenagers rolled into the Perrywood community of Upper Marlboro. They came in cars and on bikes, some from as far away as the District, to play basketball. By 7:15 p.m., there wasn't enough room on the court, so the players spilled onto the streets, sat on cars, played music and chilled.
This nightly ritual disturbed residents who found it increasingly difficult to cut through the teenage bramble at the entrance to their suburban Prince George's County neighborhood, where homes sell for $180,000 to $300,000.
The homeowners association, concerned about what members called an eyesore and recent break-ins and vandalism, hired off-duty Prince George's police officers. They were instructed to stop people at the basketball court and ask for some proof that they "belong in the area," said Anthony Jaby, the neighborhood watch chairman.
That decision sounded a familiar and unpleasant chord with some residents for one reason: Perrywood is virtually all black. And the idea of black people asking police to keep other black people from their neighborhood, for whatever reason, has left some residents ill at ease.
"We started having problems with the young men, and unfortunately they are our people," said Greta Scott, who has lived in Perrywood for two years. She agrees with the measures, but "it becomes pretty uncomfortable, because I resent the fact that black males are already singled out. Here we are singling them out again. But what can you do?"
Well-to-do black neighborhoods such as Perrywood -- eight miles east of the District -- are sprouting all across central and southern Prince George's, the richest black-majority suburb in the nation. As they do, some residents are worried about protecting their property values without adopting the same separatist, elitist attitudes that many blacks have accused suburban whites of having.
Perrywood, which is about four years old, consists of 350 single-family homes and town houses, but eventually it will grow to 1,400 units. An Olympic-size swimming pool, tennis courts, ball fields and hiking trails are all part of the community. Volvos, minivans and Mercedes-Benzes line its driveways.
The basketball players from outside Perrywood said they are drawn to the court because it is big and new and there isn't anywhere to play in their own neighborhoods.
Perrywood is far from the county's high-crime neighborhoods, but lately, car thefts, loitering, break-ins and graffiti on gazebos have become concerns. In late May, a homeowners association newsletter denounced the scene around the basketball court.
"Unfortunately, we have already experienced violence and property damage in our community . . . not to mention the eyesore' at the basketball court every night," said the recent newsletter, written by Jaby and edited by association board members.
Although the homeowners board "does not directly connect the outsiders with security problems," Jaby said, some residents say cracking down on the uninvited guests around the court, as well as erecting stop signs and posting speed limits, will help curtail the problems.
The resulting conflict of emotions is complex.
"I have a major problem with this decision," said Perrywood resident Robert Lewis, 29. "When I found out . . . I was mad. I was angry. I don't think I'm better than any other blacks."
Lewis, a producer for Electra Records, said he learned of "the foul situation" when he saw a white officer stop a youth he knows "while he was just walking home, not spray-painting anything."
"I thought our kids shouldn't have to grow up feeling that they're a security threat just because they're black," Lewis said.
Richard Vaughan, a music teacher in the Prince George's schools, said the security stops "send a negative message to the kids, that I don't care who you are or what you do. If you are a minority person, you still are considered the lowest and most dangerous. And that is a terrible thing to feel."
Ben Froman, 18, drove from the District one June day looking forward to an evening of basketball and movies with a friend from school who lives in Perrywood. As he searched for his buddy's address, he said, an officer "roadblocked" him and asked him to leave the community.
"I didn't do anything wrong, except that I had D.C. plates on my car," said Froman, who is black. "It's not fair. We should have the right to come over here and play."
The homeowners board and the police don't see it that way.
"We're not trying to hassle anybody. The police are here to make everybody feel better, safer," Jaby said. "The security seems harsh because it seems that we are trying to patrol our own people, but in reality, we're just asking to live in an environment where you can feel free. We want our kids to know the officers. We want them to talk together and have a relationship."
Other options, such as a gate for the community, were discarded because "that would imprison the neighborhood," Jaby said.
Prince George's police Sgt. Elizabeth Mints said the crowds have gone down since the police presence at the basketball court became known. "The word has gotten out that we are in there, and the general feeling is of more safety," she said.
Mints said the off-duty officers patrol the neighborhood's public streets only "if things are quiet" at the basketball court. And if the officers do approach someone who is not a member of the community at the court, they are asked, "in a nice way," to leave the area if they are not invited.
Although Prince George's is the wealthy vanguard of majority-African American suburbs, neighborhoods like Perrywood are blossoming outside Atlanta, Miami, St. Louis, Denver and other major cities.
Some sociologists have focused on how attitudes among black Americans change -- or stay the same -- as they join the middle class in large numbers and establish the types of suburban communities that white Americans created in earlier decades.
In the years after World War II, millions of whites moved to the suburbs, and "middle-class blacks would have joined them, except for residential segregation," said Bart Landry, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland and author of "The New Black Middle Class." "Today, we're seeing the black middle class do what the white middle class has long done: carve out residential space for themselves."
Perrywood resident Ed Connor, who is black and recently moved with his family from Atlanta, put it this way: "People who don't live here might not care about things the way we do. Seeing all the new houses going up, largely unprotected, someone might be tempted."
Bryan Davis, 14, a resident of another well-to-do black Prince George's neighborhood, Lake Arbor, sometimes visits Perrywood. He doesn't object to the security checks.
"White neighborhood or black neighborhood -- it doesn't matter," he said. "People start to act the same whatever color they are. If they see somebody suspicious, it really doesn't matter where they are. They just want to protect what's theirs."
Marva Jo Camp-Pender, a zoning chairwoman for the Lake Arbor Civic Association, said that in one area of Lake Arbor, where permanent basketball backboards are not allowed, "we saw a proliferation of the portable goals, and in any cul-de-sac or street, there would be large groupings of teenagers and older children playing."
When the "large groupings" became too large for comfort, residents were reminded to remove their hoops at the end of the day. "With some reasonableness, people have to take them down," Camp-Pender said.
But, Landry said, "middle-class blacks have a hard time doing the same thing whites do without it appearing harsh and insensitive. Because of the racial tension in this society, there is some pressure within the black community to stick together in opposing racism and ignoring class differences."
Still, some said, there are times when the ties that bind tightest are those among economic equals.
"People have a tendency to stick together because they want to maintain their property values, their homes -- class issues," said James Newborn, a resident of Perrywood for two years. "We're just strong working people who want something nice. Race never entered the picture."
After seeing so many young people wander the streets in search of something to do, Camp-Pender began a collaborative effort with the county, state and a private developer to build a public recreation facility at the edge of Lake Arbor.
"I don't care if you're from the projects or the suburbs. People need recreation," Lewis said.
Jaby agreed. "I can understand why kids come to Perrywood to play -- they have no place to go," he said. "But they don't understand that if they tear the place up, it's not going to be here for anybody."
In Perrywood's attempt to secure the community, some residents themselves have been stopped by the police and faced with the task of convincing an officer that they belong.
Jasen Butler, 16, said he was stopped for questioning as he walked his dog not far from his front door.
"That gets annoying," he said, "but we need it. We've got to do it." CAPTION: Terry Clark jams on David Bell. Prince George's police say crowds have gone down since officers began patrolling Perrywood's court. CAPTION: A sign spells out the rules for using Perrywood's new, full-size basketball court. Unless you're from Perrywood or you're invited, don't bother coming.