A recent acquaintance of mine, a tall, skeptical fellow who speaks with deliberateness and ease on most subjects, was downright slow in giving directions to his house to a group of friends. It seemed he lingered fondly over each bump in the road on the way out of the District on 29-North. By the time he had us turning onto Rustling Leaf and then onto Hickory Limb, I detected a faint smile curving his lips. He had been building to this moment with impressive reluctance, knowing exactly what it held in store.
Sure enough, our heads tilted up almost in unison. "Rustling Leaf!" snorted one of us.
"Is it Rustling Leaf Road or Rustling Leaf Street?" demanded another with icy precision.
"It's just," pause, "Rustling Leaf." He spoke with such finality the street fluttered, red and gold, in front of us. He was smiling fully now, forgiveness and resignation in his glance. All residents of Columbia, Md., must bear this burden, he was quick to explain, the price of living in a carefully-constructed heaven.
He didn't say it, but it was clear that for him the price of paradise was especially high. After all, to an illussionless GS-14 with almost 20 years of governmental infighting behind him, street names like Woven Moonbeam, Dawnblush Court, and Lasting Light Way are a particular affront. My friend, I later learned, was also an accomplished novelist, a late-night wordsmith. I could see from his books that his sense of irony and futility was extremely well-developed.
But he patiently explained to us that Columbia, a planned community of 60,000, had been growing by leaps and bounds since it was established in 1964, and it needed street names in a hurry. As he understood it, a "little old lady who loved literature" had performed the mammoth job. The result was entire neighborhoods echoing with the phrases of American writers.
Most Columbians who give the matter any thought also believe in the "little old lady" theory, unable to explain the bizarre beauty of their street names in any other way. But despite Columbia's ordinary suburban appearance -- traditional colonial-style brick homes alternating with split-level ranch houses -- it is not an ordinary place. Rather, it is the unfolding of one man's life dream to build the "next America" inside and out. Or, as master developer James W. Rouse himself put it, a dream to "replace the nobodyness of the massive formless city with the somebodyness of communities."
It was Rouse who determined that his Eden would not be marred by a commonplace Main or Elm Street. Back in the early days of planning, when his marketing director proposed a system that "celebrated American arts and letters," Rouse chose it over a more "disciplined" system similar to Washington's. "I'm a great believer in the fact that everything matters and that names matter a great deal," Rouse explained recently. "The American literature idea had the charm of a system . . . not a disciplined one but a rational one." Rouse has hired a succession of official namers, three so far, all of whom have been decidedly uneccentric middleaged women.
The names, like the rest of Columbia, follow an elaborate plan. Neighborhoods cluster around village centers which in turn cluster around the town center. Every neighborhood derives its street names from one or two writers or artists, but mainly from poets, explained Lesa Borg, the current namer. She sometimes has trouble coming up with new poets, she said, since they have to be both prolific and relatively cheerful to serve as adequate reservoirs of lyricism. Edgar Allan Poe, who was suggested to her "because he was of Baltimore origins," was altogether flawed. "Nobody wants to live on a street called The Red Death or The Raven."
Thanks to Borg and her predecessors, Columbia's neighborhoods immortalize writers in a way they may not have dreamed of. August Light, Big Woods Court, Fable Row, Spotted Horse Lane and Tolling Clockway spill off of Faulkner Ridge Circle. The Mending Wall curves off Brook Road in Columbia's first neighborhood,The Birches, a tribute to Robert Frost.
You can almost glimpse that irreverent old humorist Mark Twain stalking a neighborhood of streets named Log Raft, Flapjack Lane, Great News and Snuffbox Terrace. Or imagine the peaceful community that comes from the pen of John Greenleaf Whittier: Barefoot Boy, Sweet Fern, Open Flower, Quiet Way.
Even my sometimes-scornful friend concedes that the names "put life on a higher plane, somehow spiritual. There are some places you'd just like to live," he confessed, "like Deep Calm."
I agreed with him, but wondered whether I would choose Resting Sea (Amy Lowell), Rainbow Span (Whittier again) or Star Path (Paul Dunbar). Along with beauty, these signs evoke an eerie loneliness, particularly when you see a single jogger churning into the distance on the spotless streets. Poets, after all, speak a language born of solitude. And utopias almost always are the dreams of discontented souls.
"Are Columbians happy?" I felt compelled to ask my friend. "Do these street names help to build community spirit, and are you all dynamic and selfless and creative?"
My friend had to ponder this a moment. "Well, Columbians tend to be complainers," he said thoughtfully. "Any deviation from perfection and there's a great wailing and gnashing of teeth.
"When you cut through everything, Columbia seems to work remarkably," he added. He had moved there, he said, because he was afraid his children would become bigots if they stayed in a place where race relations were more strained. Columbia prides itself on the fact that its first baby was the offspring of an interracial marriage.
"Well, what is your favorite street?" I asked, thinking with some relish that my friend's cynical mask was slipping fast indeed.
"Hemingway wrote my favorite story," he said. "I'm still looking for A Clean, Well-Lighted Place."