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Columbia Comes of Age

James W. Rouse's 1967 Creation Maintains a Hold on Its Believers

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page HO03

Recently, I wrote a story about a teacher at Wilde Lake Middle School who was robbed at gunpoint in her classroom early one morning. As a crime reporter for the Post, I'm not naive. Still, somehow a holdup seemed almost incomprehensible at the middle school where I learned algebra from a very patient Mr. Longo and cried my eyes out while reading "The Yearling" by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

I grew up in the 1980s not more than a mile from the school and walked there every day. Back then, crime occurred so rarely that my parents just chuckled when I tried to convince them it was unsafe for me to walk our dog, Teddy, in the neighborhood at night alone. While Columbia is far from crime-ridden today, it doesn't seem as secure as it was back then.

Columbia's massive Friendship Tree reflects James W. Rouse's commitment to community. (James M Thresher -- The Washington Post)

I have seen the community change in other ways, too. It has become far more affluent, with million-dollar homes sprouting up in the wealthier villages, such as River Hill. The Mall in Columbia has morphed into a collection of more upscale stores, and the trees surrounding it have been hacked down in favor of pricey townhouses.

In short, with 97,000 people, Columbia has become more like a city. If incorporated, it would be the second-largest one in Maryland, after Baltimore .

As lofty as it sounds, Columbia was founded on the concept of equality and cultural integration. That's why my parents moved here in 1973, when I was a year old and my sister was 3. Columbia's celebrated founder, the late James W. Rouse, established the town in 1967 with the idea of an open community that hopefully would avoid most of the racial, social and economic problems of some urban areas.

Wilde Lake was the first village in Columbia. Its residents are still the core of the town's true believers -- the hippie intellectual holdovers who wanted to live and rear their children in a place where a sense of shared community trumped differences among races, religions and ethnicity.

I grew up in Bryant Woods, in a four-bedroom, single-family house with a yard. A short walk up the street was Partridge Courts, much of which was subsidized Section 8 housing, and at the top of the street was Roslyn Rise, a public housing complex. In the 1970s and '80s, most of Columbia was like that.

Rouse used some questionable tactics in selling homes to achieve that goal of racial integration, at times guiding African American home buyers away from certain streets to avoid creating all-black neighborhoods. But the result was neighborhoods and schools that had children from different financial and ethnic backgrounds. The reputation that certain schools now have as being "ghetto" or "rich" did not exist in the 1980s.

At my high school, popularity was determined more by personality and athletic ability than by the kind of clothes and cars your parents could afford. My friends would have to think twice if you asked them who in the school was white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim or Buddhist. So many kids in the school were of mixed race and culture. Those things just never mattered to us.

Rouse made sure that fences separating houses were frowned upon, if allowed at all, and that homes did not have mailboxes. Instead, in an effort to foster neighborly conversation, a community mailbox was installed at the top of each street. He took the idea a step further by establishing the Columbia Association, which allowed a family to pay one fee, no matter how many children, for membership at all of the city's gyms, tennis courts and swimming pools. Those pools, along with a petting farm next to Merriweather Post Pavilion, were the sustenance of my summer fun as a kid.

Rouse also created Slayton House, where I took ballet and acting classes, for the arts community and the Meeting House, where I was bat mitzvahed, as a common gathering place. And he set up the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, where worshippers from all denominations could meet. My family still goes to the Interfaith Center on the High Holy Days, just as we have for the past 30 years. And every year, I marvel at the hundreds of worshipers who still return for this ritual, which is warm in spirit and tradition. Yet like many religious services in Columbia, it takes place in a building as nondescript as a conference center.

There are a handful of buildings in Columbia designed years ago by famed architect Frank Gehry, but mostly you won't find beautiful architecture or great museums around town. You'll have to search pretty hard to find moms decked out in strappy Jimmy Choo sandals or dads wearing Bruno Magli shoes. But you'll often find parents eating dinner with their kids on school nights. And when it's time for college, you'll see many kids going to Ivy League schools.

The paradox of that is that all 'tweener children in Columbia, including me, spent as much time as possible roaming the mall as packs of bored, lip-glossed kids who could not go to the bathroom without the company of another bored, lip-glossed kid. What we wanted most was to be part of the pack, although I'm not sure exactly what we did other than shove our winter coats under the display beds in department stores so they wouldn't burden us as we shopped. We hung out at the mall's now-defunct video arcade and ate trays of french fries at McDonald's, which once occupied prime mall real estate where the Gap is now located.

I recall being amazed, and a little afraid, of the Deadheads who would use the mall's fountains as their personal sinks when they were in town for the Grateful Dead's yearly concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

When I reached Wilde Lake High School, the hours once spent at the mall or watching "General Hospital" on television gave way to daily soccer and basketball practices. I formed some of my closest friendships on the soccer field, and on countless weekends my parents schlepped me around the region for games. In high school, what mattered most was who played in the state championship games. Football, soccer, basketball, baseball, softball, field hockey, lacrosse. There was nothing like going to Howard High -- then the only school with lighted athletic fields -- and watching my friends (and whichever boy of the month I had a crush on) playing for the big time.

When my soccer team was in the state quarterfinals, we lost to Howard. I wished I'd played better that night, because 3,000 people were watching and we would have reached the semifinals.

After graduating from high school, I told my parents that I was done with Columbia. I went to the University of Florida and I studied in Europe. After college, I had a wanderlust. I went to South America for about a year and then moved to Miami. Without being conscious of it, I took with me the sensibility acquired while growing up in Columbia.

That community incorporates the core of life: that there are things far more precious than money or status, and that if someone looks or sounds different from me, it doesn't mean we don't have much to talk about.

They were lessons to live by, and they were difficult to miss if you grew up where I did. Although I don't live in Columbia, I'm back in the region. And I guess you could call me a second-generation true believer.

A 1990 graduate of Wilde Lake High School, Allison Klein has worked as a reporter at the Miami Herald and the Baltimore Sun. She joined The Washington Post in November 2004 and began by covering police and courts in Howard County. She recently was assigned to cover the police beat in Prince George's County.

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