It was the morning after Columbia's first homicide, and commuters already had spread news of the crime 27 miles south to Washington. As general manager of the three-year-old "new town," Michael Spear was the one who, reluctantly, had to talk to reporters eager to learn the details.

"Does this mean you failed?" asked one television reporter. "Has Columbia lost its innocence?"

The same question seemed to accompany every misfortune in Columbia's brief history, and Spear was irritated. "How far did you drive to get here?" he shot back. "In that time, how many murders do you think you passed in order to get this big story?"

In a way, the interest in that slaying 17 years ago was understandable. Ever since Baltimore mortgage banker James W. Rouse announced that he had secretly purchased one-tenth of the land in rural Howard County with the intent of building a self-sufficient city, one that would be a model for "The Next America," planners and commentators have questioned what kind of place Columbia is.

This year, Columbia is celebrating its 20th birthday, but the debate about exactly what it is continues: Is it on its way to becoming a "real" city, with the crime, crowds and eye-catching night life that most people associate with traditional urban living? Or will it always be a modern-day suburb, with not only enough office space to generate jobs but also the quiet streets, two-car garages and neighborhood soccer leagues that are the trademarks of bedroom communities?

If there is a consensus, it is that Columbia is different -- a planned community created when a group of developers, social scientists and architects sat down and decided all at once what it would be.

The planners even decided what the people would be like. At a time when Maryland law barred people of different races from marrying, Rouse hoped that the community would attract people of diverse ages, races and incomes.

It was envisioned as a series of nine residential "villages" circling a downtown area, with schools, public swimming pools and shops within walking distance of most neighborhoods. Gas stations were hidden from roadways by rows of trees and bushes; proposed office buildings were scaled down so as "not to overwhelm their users."

"It's a pseudo-city, I tell you," said one member of the Howard County Council, who was born and raised in Baltimore.

"It's the land of make-believe," said one Columbia resident whose daughter was 8 years old before she saw a parking meter and whose son thought the daily throng of office workers in downtown Baltimore was a parade.

But the fact is that people have bought the 8,600 single-family houses, 6,400 town houses and 2,500 condominiums that make up two-thirds of Columbia's neighborhoods. People have rented the 6,600 apartments that complete the housing picture, and people shop at the 900,000-square-foot mall. Something about the predictable mix of shopping centers, swimming pools and schools has encouraged nearly 2,000 businesses to locate there.

In all, it is a place that 68,000 people, including many who could well afford to live elsewhere, call home. And within 10 years, it is expected to become the second-largest city in Maryland, with a population topping 100,000 and surpassing unincorporated Bethesda.A Place Where Children Can Play Outside

Robert Tishkevich wanted to move to Columbia; Roxanne Tishkevich did not.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., he came to Maryland 10 years ago, giving up his job as a public schoolteacher to become a U.S. Park Police officer because "I was sick of seeing kids grow up as I had, fighting for nothing." There is no doubt that the house on Iron Pen Place that the Tishkeviches share with their two children is far away from Flatbush, and for him, that was enough.

"It's all the things we grew up wanting as kids -- a house in the country, the trees and the lawn -- the whole suburban life style," he said. To this day, he said, he cannot get over the fact that their 3-year-old daughter April can play alone outside.

At first, Roxanne Tishkevich was not so enchanted. She feared feeling isolated on a street where an arch of trees virtually blocks a view of the sky. In the end, the price on the modest split-level house with the wood-paneled family room proved to be too good to pass up, and she relented.

"I wasn't prepared to settle in like Bobby was," she said. "I was sitting on the stoop all day saying, 'I want to party. Where should we go? Ain't nothing happening here.' "

That was seven years ago, and time and motherhood have turned disadvantages into assets in Roxanne Tishkevich's eyes. The couple is now thinking that they may leave Columbia in a few years because traffic and escalating crime have made it too much like a "real" city.

According to a survey compiled three years ago by The Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, the Tishkeviches are fairly typical among Columbians. Families with children make up 41 percent of all households, while two adults with no children make up another 25 percent. About 5 percent of the households are headed by single parents.

It is a young community and a relatively affluent one. The average age for residents is 28, compared with 31 for Baltimore and for the state. The typical adult is just under 40.

Like the Tishkeviches, the majority of families tend to be headed by two wage-earners whose combined income approaches $50,000 annually. About half of the residents work in professional fields such as law, medicine and engineering; 97 percent of all residents have at least a high school diploma, compared with 76 percent for the Washington-Baltimore region.

Reflecting the city's proximity to Washington and the National Security Agency at nearby Fort Meade, nearly 20 percent of Columbians are employed by the federal government, the survey showed. Two-thirds of the residents work in Baltimore, 18 miles to the north, or Washington, 27 miles to the south. Most of the rest work in Columbia.

That Columbia has spawned nearly 41,000 jobs is a fact The Rouse Co. trumpets at every turn. The new town's ability to attract employers has far exceeded expectations, and it is, in fact, the first thing Rouse executives mention when asked how Columbia is like a city. The second is Columbia's racial diversity.

Columbia residents generally respond to such claims with amusement. While Columbia may have all the amenities found in many cities -- jobs, a transportation system, a local college, for example -- it does not offer the life style that many Columbia residents associate with a place such as Washington or Baltimore. A city has taxicabs, street-level stores and skyscrapers, they say, not parking lots, a giant shopping mall and winding streets that spill into precise town house developments and end in cul-de-sacs.

If Columbia were truly a city, they muse, would Columbians get in their cars on weekend nights and head for Baltimore or Washington?

"If I weren't working here or had a young child in school, I would see very little reason to live here. It's too much of a suburb," said John Brandenburg, chief executive officer of a corporation that was set up to manage Columbia's first housing development for families with low incomes.

"I remember the first time I saw a bum at The Mall. I was shocked," said 14-year-old Kristin Bacon. "You have the feeling growing up here that they will always be in Baltimore or Washington. I always assumed that they weren't allowed in Columbia. It's like a glass bubble."

This does not mean that Columbians are not proud of their community. Many point out that it was the suburban atmosphere that drew them to Columbia in the first place.

"My kids think it's too cosmetic, too pretty," said Helen Ruther, one of Columbia's first residents. "I don't need that. I don't need the dirt and the crowds to make it a city."

Pierce Lewis, a geographer studying urban landscapes at the Smithsonian Institution's Wilson Center, said the reason Columbia does not feel like a city to some people is a function of the time in which it was created.

During the early 1960s, he said, most major American cities experienced a precipitous decline with the flight to the suburbs of white families and the businesses that served them. The federal government had funneled millions of dollars into urban renewal projects, but nothing, it seemed, could stem the tide.

"Cities were perceived as messy, unsanitary, cramped and deeply flawed, and Columbia is a direct reflection of that," Lewis said. "The American people had already made their preferences known, loud and clear. They wanted open spaces, no threatening downtown, lots of schools."

Those who are drawn to Columbia today, Lewis said, are most likely attracted for similar reasons.

"People are not looking for excitement in their place of residence. If most suburbs look boring, it's because they are meant to be," he said. "Columbia . . . has succeeded for the same reasons as large-scale housing developments in the suburbs."

Richard McCauley, senior counsel for The Rouse Co. and a Columbia resident since 1969, explained that Rouse's commitment to integrated neighborhoods made Columbia an attractive choice for young couples who were sympathetic to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Even before the first houses were built, Rouse announced that real estate agents who discriminated on the basis of race would be forbidden to work there.

Columbia also offered religious facilities called interfaith centers that brought denominations together under one roof, and day care centers that allowed women the option of working, he said.

At the time, Columbia seemed to be an exotic alternative for young families eager to avoid the decay of the big cities as well as the monotony of their suburbs. "A decision to move to Columbia was just the opposite of the status quo," McCauley said. Civic-Minded and Class-Conscious

That Columbians are somehow more civic-minded than others is a thought often articulated in Columbia. The believers -- and most Columbians are believers when they talk to an outsider -- say it almost as regularly as they say how attractive their community is and how many activities there are for children. The Columbia telephone directory lists more than 200 charitable and fraternal organizations.

One frequent topic of conversation is whether Columbia will achieve its stated goal of socioeconomic integration. According to Rouse and others, making Columbia affordable for families with low incomes may be a challenge that is impossible to meet.

"I don't get the feeling that there is any kind of consensus in the community as a whole that there needs to be more poor people here. There is a commitment on the part of Columbia's leadership, but I think most people would just as soon seal up the borders," Brandenburg said.

To prevent the creation of ghettos, subsidized housing units in Columbia are scattered. But one teen-ager confided that everyone in Columbia knows which is which, and a classmate was distraught when a sudden drop in his parent's economic status forced them to move to one of the "less desirable" town house developments.

Although Rouse had hoped that families with low incomes would eventually make up 10 percent of Columbia's residents, the rate is closer to 7 percent. And as the population continues to grow, the number is likely to continue to fall without a dramatic change in government policy, Brandenburg said.

"That is a real loss, and it's of our times, not of Columbia," said Rouse, who envisioned Columbia as a city where a janitor and a corporate executive could live in the same neighborhood. "Our purpose has never wavered. The desire to get down as far as we can is still there."

But interest rates and land prices make it difficult. And, with real estate values generally higher than those in Baltimore and only slightly lower than Washington, Columbia has become increasingly upscale.

Surveys of shoppers at The Mall indicated that Bloomingdale's was the store they most wanted to see added. Families frequently spend more than $1,000 a year to purchase memberships in athletic facilities.

According to a quarterly report published by The Rouse Co., a new house in Columbia costs from $113,500 to more than $400,000 and ranges from a two-bedroom ranch-style house close to major highways to the top-of-the-line custom model now showing in the most isolated section of Columbia. Rents for one-bedroom apartments, an increasing number of which are advertised for their "luxury" features, range from $430 to $800 a month.

These prices are certainly more than workers earning the minimum wage can afford. Indeed, several families living on the average of $50,000 say they are having trouble making ends meet between keeping up their mortgage payments and buying memberships to Columbia's plentiful athletic facilities.

"I think we have done as well as we could have operating in a free market system and the government resources we had," Spear said. "People who say the community is not diverse are wrong, but people who say that it is predominantly middle and upper-middle class are right.

"Will we ever have a greater number of low-income people living in Columbia? I doubt it."

Residents Find Lack of Variety

Urban planners generally agree that it would be impossible today to amass the amount of land and capital that went into creating Columbia and Reston, a smaller planned community in Northern Virginia.

But what Columbia lacks today is not land and capital, according to its residents. It is variety. It has two chain Mexican restaurants. There is a dinner theater club, but no art galleries or museums.

"Sometimes I'll drive to a cafe in Baltimore just to watch the people. They have artists and bohemians and young people who are barely making it but have this wonderful spirit. We don't have that in Columbia," said Ann Scherr, who moved to Columbia in 1969.

When asked what the next 20 years will bring to Columbia, Rouse Co. executives say "more." More office buildings, houses and restaurants. More open spaces. More density in the downtown area, and more places for people to walk and meet. The map that was created 20 years ago provides for all of these things, and Columbia has been true to its plan.

But is it a city? That question was recently put to Michael Spear by his daughter, who had spent the better part of an evening arguing the matter with some friends. His answer says a little about Columbia, but more about the unbuilt cities and suburbs of the future.

"If you think a city has a million people, that it has to have skyscrapers and street people, then {Columbia} is not a city. And if you say that it is a place where a lot of people can live and work, with a variety of housing and businesses to fulfill their needs, then it is a city," he said. "A small, growing and maturing city."