Center hopes to impart sense of community WEST COLUMBIA

February 10, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

If you're a newcomer to Columbia, chances are you may not realize your home isn't just another comfortable, respectable planned suburb.

It's a "concept" mind you, a place with a "sense of purpose," a "sense of community," and "one of the best places in the country to raise a family."

Well, at least those are some of the upbeat messages the slide show and displays at Columbia's new Welcome and Information Center pitch to visitors.

"In the beginning, people moved here for the concept of what Columbia was founded on. That's not so true now," says Barbara Kellner, director of the center that opened in the fall in the new headquarters of the Columbia Association. The private, nonprofit organization manages the unincorporated city's recreational facilities and community programs.

"People move here now because it has good housing and schools, and seems a great place to live," she says. "One of the welcome center's goals is to let people know what the founding concepts of Columbia were so they'll get involved and have a sense of community. I like to believe that's Columbia's strength today."

The Columbia Association decided to pull together a visitors center in response to residents' suggestions that such a facility was needed after Columbia's developer, The Rouse Co., closed its exhibit center in 1989.

The exhibit center was on Wincopin Circle next door to the association's new offices and included displays explaining how the city was envisioned, founded and developed by James Rouse.

Visitors to the new welcome center, open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, are first treated to an eight-minute slide show.

The show gives viewers a brief overview of Columbia's founding concept of racial integration, its sense of community and its "sense of purpose" -- notably creating an environment where people could live productive lives unfettered by worries over affordable housing, good educational opportunities, violent crime and discrimination.

Visitors also can take in a display of photographs, historical letters and reminiscences from some of the behind-the-scenes players of Columbia's founding, and matching background information, aimed at providing a historical perspective.

The display wraps around a wall of a 40-foot corridor and covers the period when Mr. Rouse approached a wealthy business associate about bankrolling the founding of a new city until the opening of Columbia's first homes and shops -- 1960 to 1967.

"At first we thought the display might cover Columbia's entire 25-year history, but when I starting going through all the material in the archives I realized that condensing 25 years into 40 feet would be impossible. It would be superficial at best," Ms. Kellner says.

She decided to narrow the focus, organizing the first display around the period covering the conceptualization, founding and first development stages of the city. A new display will go up in April, she says.

The current display juxtaposes events involving Columbia's founding with brief notes about national and international historic events.

For example, the display for 1965 notes that during that year the county Planning Commission gave its tentative approval to the construction of Columbia's first village, Wilde Lake, which would include a new, integrated high school. That was the same year, the display notes, that the county school system was shutting down the all-black Harriet Tubman High School, marking the end of segregated schools in the county.

Other markers note the turmoil of the period, including the Vietnam War and riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles.

"As I was pulling the display together I found it very interesting to see and recall what was going on in the country at the time Rouse was envisioning a city based on community spirit and cooperation," Ms. Kellner says.

So far the center hasn't generated much interest, averaging about 10 visitors a week, but Ms. Kellner is working to generate more traffic. This week a sign will go up in front of the association building, and Ms. Kellner also hopes to get the word out to Realtors so they'll steer new Columbia residents to the center.

While visitors might find historical information about Columbia interesting, most come with questions that are close to home.

"A lot of people want to know how their street got its unusual name and what Columbia looked like before it was built," she says.

To settle the "What did this place look like before it was built?" query, the display includes photographs, including aerials showing the rolling farmland and a 1965 snapshot of a lonely crossroads -- a two-lane Route 29 and a deserted Route 108.

To answer the predictable street name quiz, Ms. Kellner keeps a notebook handy that she can turn to for the answer.

In short, she says, the majority of the city's street and neighborhood names are drawn from American literature. There are exceptions, including streets and neighborhoods named for colonial land grants, such as Stevens Forest; the village of River Hill, named for a game preserve nearby; the McGill's Common neighborhood, where streets are named after North American folk songs; and the village of Wilde Lake, named after Frazar Wilde.

And if you don't know who he is, you're probably a good candidate for a visit to the welcome center, Ms. Kellner advises.

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