Despite Columbia's problems at 25, community pioneers remain optimistic

June 14, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

For many who live there, Columbia is more than a place. It's a religion.

The pioneers -- those who, like former Planning Board Chairwoman Helen Ruther, "came over on the Mayflower" -- are still true believers.

But they are beginning to worry about the faith and whether it will be appropriated by the next generation of Columbians.

As Columbia celebrates its 25th birthday this week, some basic tenets appear to be crumbling. In the beginning, rich lived with poor, blacks lived with whites, young lived with old. Diversity was encouraged. No one was excluded.

"People didn't live in isolation," says County Council Legislative Assistant Barbara Russell, one of the new town's first residents. "They demanded a voice. They felt like they had an inherent right to run things. It's been that way from the very first town meetings in the village of Wilde Lake.

"You could go out to meetings every night of the week," Ms. Ruther says. "If you were a big joiner, you joined."

But in those early days, the population was 700. Now, it's 76,000. Then, people could put $200 down and buy a new house for $16,000. Now, the average cost of a house is $176,365 and the average rent is $1,114 a month.

With prices like that, most children of the pioneers -- many of whom are just starting their careers -- cannot afford to live in Columbia.

A lack of affordable housing and a lack of a public transportation system are the biggest problems facing the new town, say the pioneers.

"I'm afraid we will lose the middle class," says Amelia Cressman, president of the Senior Advocates of Columbia. The average household income in Columbia is already $61,100.

Economics cause more segregation than racial attitudes, Ms. Cressman says. "And economics have won out."

Michael Deets, 26, is one of the few of his generation to return to Columbia.

"A lot of [high school] classmates return briefly but find it too expensive," he says. "But they have it in the back of their minds that Columbia is a place they want to come back to."

Mr. Deets moved to Columbia with his family in 1970 when he was 4 years old. He was one of the first children to attend nursery school in Columbia, and graduated from Wilde Lake High School in 1983. He returned in 1986 after his graduation from William and Mary. He solved the housing problem by temporarily moving in with his family.

Although he grew up thinking of Columbia as a special place, Mr. Deets fears the new town is in danger of being just another suburb.

"I want it to be more, but I am not sure that everyone who's moving in now understands that or necessarily agrees" that it should be, Mr. Deets said.

May Ruth Seidel, who has been a housing activist for nearly all of her 22 years in Columbia, worries that "people are going to be put out on the street" when apartment complexes that provide for low- and moderate-income families are no longer required to do so.

Some Columbia builders accepted the requirements to qualify for a defunct federal program. Builders who set aside a certain percentage of their units for low- and moderate-income tenants received low-interest, federally guaranteed loans.

The requirement ends when the loans are paid off.

Ms. Seidel is on a committee that has worked since September to develop a plan to encourage construction of moderately priced dwelling units countywide.

"We still don't have it," she says. "I'm getting impatient. It's very important that we have a mix of housing for the folks who live here. But it's like dipping a tablespoon in the ocean. And that's tough."

Although she was encouraged to see some new faces at a housing meeting she attended in Columbia recently, "not everybody gets on the bandwagon," Ms. Seidel says. "With two-worker families, lots of folks are very busy. There's not a lot of time for advocacy."

* Having a mix of housing types with people of all income levels living together is part of what the pioneers and their successors call the Columbia concept. Columbia, says 18-year resident Patricia Hatch, was to become "a garden where people of all backgrounds would grow harmoniously."

Although a disciple of the Columbia concept, Ms. Hatch is quick to point out that living in Columbia during most of its existence does not make one a pioneer.

"The pioneers had mud" when they arrived. "We had pavement," she says.

If judged by what was promised, the garden still needs work, Ms. Hatch and the pioneers say. But if judged by how it compares with other places, the garden has been abundant, they say.

"Other than on vacations, I don't spend a lot of time outside of Columbia," says Ms. Russell. When she moved to Columbia from California in 1967, Ms. Russell had planned to stay only two years. She has been here 25.

"I work, live, socialize and recreate here," Ms. Russell says. "I have to push myself to go to Baltimore, D.C., New York, or even Anne Arundel County. I feel very safe here everywhere I go. I know people and people know me.

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