For Barbara and Charles Russell, Columbia's commitment to open housing was more than a political statement.

In 1967, it was still illegal for blacks and whites to marry in Maryland, and with a baby on the way, the mixed-race couple was desperately looking for a place to settle.

"We had to check with a lawyer to see if we could legally live together," recalled Barbara Russell, who is white. "We were thinking I would have to rent a place and then sneak Charlie in during the middle of the night."

The Russells had heard of Columbia, but they were unaware of its open housing policy. "We couldn't believe it. Nobody blinked. They were truly color-blind," she said.

When the Russells' child turned out to be the first baby born in Columbia, its developer, James Rouse, was very pleased. Their little boy became a symbol of sorts for Columbia, even though many real estate agents had predicted that Rouse would sink his project if he made it widely known that blacks and whites would be living as neighbors.

Racial integration was one of Rouse's major goals when he created Columbia. Rouse regularly points out that Columbia probably has more mixed-race marriages per capita than any other city in the country. The city's black population has held steady at about 20 percent, and Columbia has a small but growing number of Asian residents.

While Rouse says that its integrated neighborhoods are Columbia's proudest achievement, the picture has not been perfect.

For example, in 1986, the Howard County Office of Human Rights received seven housing discrimination complaints, six of which came from Columbia.

Also, some residents complain that few blacks are prominent in Columbia's economic and political structure and that there is little cultural diversity.

"Everybody is the same in Columbia," said Kate Scherr, a 14-year-old who has lived her whole life there. "You have black people and white people, but they're all the same."

She added that while it is not unusual for children of different races in Columbia to be friends, such friendships might become strained once they become teen-agers.

"I know one girl who was dating a guy who was black and her parents made her break up with him," Scherr said. "It's like the integration thing is kind of false. People just go along with it because it's not polite to be a racist."

Saundra Barrett, 36, a black consultant who grew up in a predominantly white section of West Baltimore, said she and her husband David have been pleased by the openness of Columbia society. The couple is active in a variety of local causes, and she said that nearly all of the functions they attend are well integrated, except the dances sponsored by her husband's predominantly black fraternity.

Her 3-year-old son, she said, "is not getting a white perspective. He's getting a balanced perspective."

"There is no doubt that Columbia is more integrated than most suburbs," said Atlee Schidler, president of the Washington Research Institute. "And if you look at it at the neighborhood level, it's probably more integrated than Washington."

Jean Toomer, administrator of the county Human Rights Office and a Columbia resident since 1969, noted that the city has few black-owned businesses.

"When you're talking to people about their perceptions of Columbia -- the goals, the successes, the diversity, the problems -- it's a very individual kind of thing," Toomer said. "For people who have grown up in an all-white suburb, sure, Columbia is diverse."