A letter from a disappointed Columbia resident appeared last week in the newspaper that serves this 15-year-old "new town" in the rolling farmland between Washington and Baltimore.
Columbia developer James Rouse read the letter aloud to more than 500 residents who jammed into a small local auditorium Sunday to hear the town's father review its first 15 years.
"After . . . attending a village board meeting at which we were the only nonofficials present, trying in vain to find out when our town house association meets, and still awaiting our first personal invitation to the home of another Columbian," Rouse read, "we have drawn certain conclusions. None of them, we fear, is consonant with the special quality of life, citizen awareness and participation, responsible intellectualism and community pride we were led to believe makes Columbia something special, something radically different."
The 68-year-old developer, who has planned such well-known projects as Baltimore's Harborplace and Boston's Faneuil Hall-Quincy Market said he is aware of Columbia's limitations because he lives there. But the community was meant to be a garden city, not a rose garden, he says in response to criticism.
Rouse acknowledged that many people moved to the new town expecting more of it than they were able to find. "Tens of thousands of people can share with you their experience of arriving in Columbia and finding it didn't meet their expectations," he said. "But people here have found a situation that seems to work--after a while. . . . It brings people together."
"It is not an attempt at a perfect city or a utopia," he said, "but rather an effort to simply develop a better city," as an alternative to "the mindlessness, the irrationality, the unnecessity of sprawl and clutter as a way of accommodating the growth of the American city." Rouse said his goal was to build a commercially viable city that instilled a "sense of community" and "respected the land."
Columbia has been called one of the most successful of dozens of planned cities built in the United States since the social revolutions of the 1960s. More than 57,000 people of all income ranges live in nine "villages" that make up the 14,000-acre new town and 1,100 businesses employ 30,000 persons. Currently, 21 builders are active in the city, which will house more than 100,000 residents when it is completed in 1990.
At first glance, a list of Columbia's problems reads like that of any moderately sized city. It's had crime and corruption. It has burglaries. In the fall of 1978 an arsonist set 28 fires; shortly before that the city's treasurer was convicted of embezzling almost $200,000 from the community recreation fund.
Columbia has had internal conflict: Residents squabble with neighbors who have bright blue doors on their garages or rotting compost on their gardens. Condominium conversions threaten those with moderate incomes and the proportion of lower-cost units has remained at a meager 6 percent of the housing stock.
A futuristic rail transportation system discussed 15 years ago for Columbia failed to materialize and residents complain about the one-hour intervals in the current daytime bus system operated by the nonprofit Columbia Association.
Some of Columbia's biggest conflicts have been with the surrounding county, a hardly surprising development when 50,000 urbanites double the population of a rural county in a dozen years.
Political battle lines between city and county solidified when Columbians swung the county's 1972 primary to George McGovern, while many of their rural neighbors voted for George Wallace. Several years later, the editor of the conservative Howard County News said: "Columbia is as far left of center as it's possible for a large number of Americans to get." The city's weekly newspaper, the Columbia Flier, fired back in an editorial, calling two leading conservatives in the county "neanderthal Republican reactionaries."
When one county councilman, was defeated in a Columbian sweep of county offices in 1977, he said, "There is a real feeling that Columbia is taking over the county."
Some Columbians, however, are beginning to feel like Howard County veterans. At Sunday's meeting, more than a third of the audience indicated that they had lived in the community for more than 10 years; some families there are made up of three generations.
"We have come closer to what the developer expected than any other town in the nation," said Barbara Russell, 41, who gave birth to Columbia's first baby in 1967.
As for those who are disillusioned, Russell said, "The problem is that people have expected too much, more than is humanly possible."
Columbians point with pride to several community-spirited efforts: In 1978 some of its citizens raised $100,000 in seed money for a 50-unit subsidized housing complex; Columbians have welcomed dozens of refugees and one in four of its residents is nonwhite. A dozen church groups share two buildings, making Columbia, Rouse said, "one of the only places in the nation where Baptists and Catholics use the same baptistry."
More than 1,500 children competed on swimming teams at 19 community pools last year and about 2,000 played in soccer leagues. The city also has 50 tennis courts and three lakes.
Rouse told the group he was proud of Columbia's activism. Its citizens, he said, took part in the Poor Peoples' March on Washington and helped victims of Washington's inner-city riots in the late 1960s. In the mid-l970s, Columbians debated allowing group housing for the mentally retarded; now there are 11 such group homes, the developer noted.
Rouse said that he thinks an interplay of opinion is one of Columbia's strongest points.
"In Columbia, you don't need to sign 'Anonymous,' " he said in reference to the bitter letter writer. "You can be proud of your opinion. . . . People will like you for it. They will even like you for it if you put your name."
"You can even damn the developer in Columbia as many others have," Rouse continued, grinning, "and the developer will like you, too."