Paradise has a gate Columbia's proposed 'gated community' doesn't fit Jim Rouse's dream.

August 26, 1996

IT IS A BIT premature and farfetched to say that the impending construction of Columbia's first gated community near The Mall in Columbia signals the end of James W. Rouse's dream of "a new community in which understanding, trust, respect -- yes, love -- might flourish."

We are talking about only 320 apartments and condominiums, after all, in a planned city of 84,000 residents. And no one plans a chain-link fence with guard dogs and a moat -- just a few gates, probably attractive ones at that. The sight of them is unlikely to leave passersby thinking of Columbia as a bastion of intolerance.

And yet, the coming of these gates marks, if not the death of a dream, at least a reminder that the ideals on which Columbia was founded 29 years ago are bound to face serious challenges at a time when so many of us yearn to retreat from the world rather than embrace it.

Society is hectic and complex, and people are tired by it -- hence the local population shift to ever more remote areas in search of a "simpler" life. The popularity of the classic homogenous subdivision stems directly from a collective desire to go home to a place where things are comfortably predictable and free of the stress of dealing with different kinds of people. Inaccessibility is an amenity; that is why most developments have their own kind of gate: one road in, one road out. People don't want to be able to walk to the next neighborhood, or even drive to it, very easily. The more isolated they are, the safer they feel.

Fear of crime, while greater than the actual threat, is very real, even in suburbia. Once sleepy counties such as Howard are not as safe as they used to be; just last week, 16 cars and trucks were broken into in one 34-hour period. Petty crime as crime goes, but it makes us feel unsafe. It makes us want to hide. It makes the idea of walls or moats or barricades to separate us from the dangers outside very appealing.

So expect to see these gated, luxury units become a success. In many ways, Columbia's downtown will benefit if that happens. But there is no doubt this new community does not fit Jim Rouse's vision. A gate says there are things to be kept out, people to be left alone. Understanding, trust, respect and love cannot grow among those whose paths rarely cross.

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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