40 years ago this summer, a man named James Rouse, a prominent local architect and entrepreneur (and grandpa of Edward Norton!), had a brain child. To form a mixed use community where people could live, play, and work all in a central location. Where open and green space was crucial and where people of diverse walks of life could be one community. It was through this vision that he founded Columbia, MD. Within Columbia there would be villages that would have a range of housing options from rental apartments to single family homes. Each village would have cul-de-sac settings with communal mailboxes so that neighbors would meet and visit. Every village would have an accessible “center” with a grocery store, dry cleaners, bank, dining options, and local business. The villages would be linked together by a series of walking paths that were cut through the natural river and creek system in the area. The woodlands and much of the green areas would be preserved for the community to enjoy.
I grew up in Columbia near the village of Harper’s Choice, attended Longfellow Elementary, swam for the Harper’s Choice Challenge, and attended the Slayton House Camp of the Arts. My friends lived on streets with great names such as Eliot’s Oak Road, Rivendell Row, and the best, Iron Pen Place (all Longfellow poetic references). I remember the year that Centennial Park was opened less than a mile from my house and it had a HUGE big lake and lots of grass. I remember loving that my friends came from many walks of life, both racially and socio-economically but I had no idea we were different. I thought we were all the same, because we went to the same school and loved Red Rover at recess. We had been together since Kindergarten, swimming together, going on Brownie camping trips together, and singing together in Chorus and in Alice in Wonderland. After fifth grade, I had to move, but it gave me great joy many years later in high school to hear that these friends had pretty much stayed together for years to come.
When I had the choice to settle somewhere and decide to start my “real life”, I knew I had to come to Columbia. The town has changed, not all of Mr. Rouse’s vision has been preserved, many new village areas are not as diverse and much of the Howard County sprawl is encroaching on the Columbia town lines. However, I chose to move less than a mile from my elementary school. I live on a cul-de-sac and have neighbors of diverse walks of life. I go to Centennial Park almost once a week to ride and am dreading swimming in that once “brand new HUGE lake” for my triathlon in the fall.
I have never been as happy living in Columbia as I was this past weekend. We met up with some friends at the park to enjoy the 4th of July. We set up our picnic on the edge of a large grassy area near the lake. As I sat back enjoying the breezy day, I looked around me. Every major racial group was represented in the park. Lots of families, enjoying good wholesome fun. Non-picnickers were enjoying the bike path on feet, skates, and bikes. Kites, dogs, and popsicles all got to be a part of the day. Ipods, playstations, and computers were not. All were welcome to come and go, use and care for the space, and enjoy nature. As I observed all around me, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this was what Mr. Rouse had hoped for in his original vision for Columbia. I would hope that he would have been proud on this day. I was certainly proud to call myself a Columbian!