Best of Three Worlds
By Anita Huslin
Situated between Washington and Baltimore, Columbia ought to be the heart of the powerhouse region the federal government cooked up five years ago when it lumped the two cities together and created the nation's fourth-largest metropolitan area.
If that's the case, it's a heart with two distinct arteries -- one running north and the other south.
Residents of the planned community in Howard County remain pulled between two strong and markedly different cities. In many respects, they are anchored in Columbia, but they dabble in Washington and Baltimore life, their preferences often dictated by daily commutes and historical ties.
"I feel real lucky," Judy Greenwald said. "We live right between Baltimore and Washington, so we're able to have contact with the best of those cities, as well as everything Columbia has to offer."
Her husband, Lee, a civil engineer who works in Laurel as a project manager for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, grew up in Baltimore. His parents still live there, offering a ready support system and baby-sitting service. This allows the couple ample opportunity to head into Baltimore for dinner at a favorite neighborhood or harbor-front eatery.
"I suppose I'd consider myself more of a Washington person, but my husband is really Baltimore-oriented at heart," said Greenwald, who is on maternity leave from her job at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
Five years ago, the federal Office of Management and Budget joined Washington and Baltimore to form a "combined statistical area." Since U.S. Census statistics showed the two cities becoming increasingly interwined anyway, officials reasoned, why not consider the area one region?
Like many government proclamations, the move barely registered among average folks at either end of the statistical yardstick. But at ground zero in Columbia, where the ripples of suburban growth from Baltimore and Washington overlap, the significance, if any, of the new designation is that it reaffirms the residents' ability to choose from the best of three worlds.
If where they work and play is any indication, most Columbians think of Washington and Baltimore first and foremost as places to work, since two-thirds of them commute to either city each day. But for news and recreation, more Columbians tend to stay at home or connect with Baltimore.
"Baltimore has always been an interesting city for its neighborhoods, the harbor, water taxis," said Lynn Egan, a longtime real estate agent and resident of Columbia. She lives there with her husband, a former prosecutor in Baltimore who has a private law practice in the city.
Baltimore, she said, has a leg up on the nation's capital in several ways: It's less expensive, easier to get to and navigate once there, offers both big league baseball and a professional football team that fans actually can get tickets to see, and serves better prime rib.
The only downside, Egan said, is the shopping, which "is absolutely pathetic," so she goes to Washington for that.
If Baltimore has won the hearts of more Columbians than Washington has, it may be because many of the community's early immigrants came from the northern city, seeking a more bucolic existence in the rural county just 12 miles southwest of Baltimore's city limit. For years, the Census Bureau placed Howard County in its Baltimore statistical area. And only over the last two decades has Columbia evolved into a suburb of Washington, as well.
But even for many Columbians who moved to the area from places other than Baltimore, the attraction to that city is immediate. Its hard-working and colorful, if somewhat gruff, image is painted graphically each week in the popular television drama "Homicide: Life on the Streets." Baltimore captures their hearts in a way that Washington -- its TV presence defined by Sunday morning policy debates and late-night comedy monologues -- cannot begin to approach.
When Dick Moeller moved to Columbia in 1974 to work at the Federal Housing Administration in Baltimore, the community's location factor weighed big. "I figured at some point I might get an opportunity to go into Washington to work at our headquarters," he said. He did, in 1976, and started a van pool to Washington that ran for 11 years.
But in the two years that he worked in Baltimore, the city won his heart. Moeller connected with the port city during long lunch-hour strolls in which its diverse neighborhoods, flavorful ethnic restaurants and proud sense of community revealed themselves to him.
Despite his time in Washington, Moeller said, he never connected on the same level with the federal city, which came across as colorless and impersonal by comparison. "I just never felt comfortable down there," he said.
Because of his work, he continues to follow the news from Washington, and he roots for the Redskins. Others in Washington-bound van pools often avoid reading The Washington Post "because it reminds them too much of work," said one commuter, who did not want to be identified. Like Moeller's wife, Jane, who reads the Baltimore Sun and watches that city's television news, they say that their interests lie north in the city with more of a hometown feel and sense of roots.
Three years ago, Moeller's wife and daughter, Jennifer, opened a restaurant in Baltimore called the Wild Mushroom. Then the Moellers bought a house across the street that they want to renovate.
Baltimore "feels like home to us now," Moeller said. "I plan to retire there."
Columbia started to catch the eye of Washingtonians as suburban sprawl pushed north from Washington and Route 29 was widened, opening a fast, direct path to Howard County. The area offered good schools, affordable housing and a safe environment -- many of the features that Howard County transplants felt had been declining in Washington and its inner-ring suburbs.
Columbia's location attracted Lucy Vargas's family after her husband was transferred to Baltimore in 1991. They moved to Howard County five years ago from Northern Virginia.
Every workday, Vargas leaves home and drives to her job at the U.S. Customs Service in Washington. Her husband goes in the opposite direction to work as an underwriting manager at Travelers Indemnity Co. in Baltimore.
In that respect, they are like thousands of other workers living in Howard County, about 35,000 of whom commute to Washington and about 34,000 to Baltimore, according to 1990 Census figures.
But as Columbia's population has grown -- from 34,961 in 1975 to 65,408 in 1985 to 83,583 in 1995 -- more new residents statistically tend to more closely resemble people from the Washington area than from the Baltimore area. According to 1996 census data, Columbians' average education level and household incomes are closer to those of people who live in Washington.
Columbians' similarities with Washington area residents could be because more new Columbians have been coming from Washington and its suburbs than the Baltimore area in recent years.
For those who moved from the Washington area, the capital city still holds a cultural appeal and is often where Columbia residents bring visiting friends and relatives to see the sights. But their lives, especially young families', tend to become centered in Columbia. And their trips into the District, aside from their daily commute, are less frequent diversions from the demands of suburban life and leisure activities they can find in their own back yards.
The Vargases have maintained their connection to Washington through occasional weekend trips to expose their children to the city's wealth of art and culture. But they've had little time after work, children's activities and household responsibilities to explore Baltimore.
"The kids are at the age where we go downtown to the Smithsonian fairly often, because it's good to expose them to educational opportunities there," Vargas said. "But I don't know anything further north than Columbia. I've been thinking, I like to see a lot of the Broadway shows and . . . we should go to Baltimore because it's closer and cheaper."
The Vargases' lifestyle reflects the priorities of many in Columbia who moved there for a safe environment for their children and access to a host of cultural and other civic attractions for themselves, said Egan, a Long & Foster Realtor who has been selling homes in the area for 18 years.
"People who choose Columbia oftentimes tend to be urban residents at heart," she said. "We get lots of people, especially with very young families, moving in who love Washington and the ease of commuting to there and were looking at the ease of raising young children in the Columbia environment."
Columbia transplants from Baltimore and Washington often seek local alternatives to the entertainment they enjoyed in the cities. The Columbia Orchestra sells about 2,400 tickets a season, slightly fewer than the 2,889 subscriptions that all Howard County residents buy for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the 3,545 for the National Symphony Orchestra.
Although the number of restaurant offerings has been increasing slowly in Columbia, Baltimore continues to be an easy and popular choice for many Columbians looking for an evening on the town.
Steve Ronning, a federal worker, moved to Columbia in 1976 when his wife, Jean, was beginning her 28-year career with Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. He said he prefers staying home these days, "but if we go out to eat, it's always in Baltimore."
That's where Jean Ronning grew up, and she enjoys return visits to Burk's Cafe, a family-style restaurant she remembers as a child. Now retired, she also appreciates being able to escape "the hubbub and bustle" of the city in the couple's "country home" in Columbia.
Statistical designation aside, if there is one identifying trait of Columbians, it is the "best of all worlds" mentality that allows them to carve their world from two diverse cities and their own suburban environment.
"Just because the feds created this one statistical area, I don't think that's made an iota of difference to the way people view themselves here," said Pam Mack, a resident of Columbia and 18-year employee of the Columbia Association, the community homeowners' group.
"People who go out of the region tend to go both ways almost equally. Sometimes you might want to go to dinner in Little Italy or down to the Baltimore National Aquarium or sometimes to the Kennedy Center or dinner in Washington. That's one of the great things about Columbia. It's very easy to go either way and get to cities with very different kinds of feels."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company