Columbia: Black and white together

June 23, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

High in the heavens above Columbia, high above hundreds of families sprawled on the grass, high above The Shirelles singing, "Dedicated to the One I Love," the late Jim Rouse surely looked down Saturday night and saw that it was good.

The Shirelles, rock 'n' roll's first great girl group, weren't precisely dedicating their anthem to Columbia's founder. But they could have been. As the crowds gather this week for the city's annual Festival of the Arts, the sights are surely grand enough to make Rouse, who died two years ago at 81, beam with delight.

Three decades ago, he created Columbia as part community and part social experiment, a real city with homes and schools and places to work and play, but also a mecca where people could get past the ancient tribal divisions of race and religion.

He'd have loved Saturday night's splendor in the grass. The Shirelles and their music arrived all dolled up from the early '60s, a time when white kids were first discovering the joys of black artists' rock 'n' roll. And the crowd was thoroughly integrated, and it felt more like a summer night's entertainment at sleepover camp than a night in an American city of 85,000 people.

Columbia has its debunkers. Too plastic, say those who like a place with wrinkles and history and edges. Not plastic enough, say those who arrived in their moving vans expecting something shiny-bright like Jim Carrey's "Truman."

A year ago, when the Howard County city marked 30 years of existence, some people looked around and noticed lines in its complexion, aches and pains in its bones, and wondered if youth was gone forever. Some noticed, here and there, little clumps of trash in the street where none had clumped before. And there were actually families that moved out of Columbia - in search of still newer suburban developments.

There were more complaints: Of vacant stores in some of the village centers, and of crime. A couple of times almost every year, there have been homicides. In Columbia Mall, some of the kids who hang out on weekends actually wear nose rings. Nose rings? Isn't it a short step from this to the terrors of Baltimore?

But the store vacancies are working out, with expensive renovations at the village centers. The Howard County police say crime's minuscule for a city so large. And the nose rings? Actually, most of Columbia's residents are hip enough to realize it's just kids trying out a few attitudes on the way to adulthood.

As for those moving out, many more are still moving in - and they come from a variety of backgrounds. At last count, Columbia's 76 percent white, 18 percent black, 6 percent Asian and other. The average household income is $72,000 a year. That's about three times higher than Baltimore's, and one of the highest in the country.

When the Shirelles performed Saturday night, they brought lines of volunteers out of the audience a couple of times. They looked like cross sections of America, not only racially but age-wise, too.

Not long before he died, Jim Rouse strolled through Columbia and reflected on the city's growth. He looked pretty pleased. There were more people, more buildings, but also "more green leaves than when we started," he said.

But the city had also succeeded in casting off some of the great American anxiety about race. The kids were going to schools that were not only integrated but succeeding academically better than just about all others in the state.

The old American racial divides, he said, were "still deep. The old forces of segregation mean no jobs, no money. We're still reaping the whirlwind. It's not easy to fix." But he added, with visible pride, "We've got more interracial marriages here than anywhere in the world."

Such notions aren't always popular. One survey says most Americans think race will always divide us. Another says most Americans want integration, but disagree on government involvement in it. Still another says many of us - including many blacks whose parents and grandparents marched for integration - now turn our backs on it.

What feels nice in Columbia is that there's no need for great debate on it. It's just there. Just as generations of Americans routinely accepted segregation (and the second-class citizenship of blacks), those in Columbia routinely go about their business in a city unself-consciously integrated.

That would please Jim Rouse. He dreamed of a harmonious place oblivious to the old divisions. If he happened to glance down Saturday night, and saw some of his kids sprawled on the grass, he must have been utterly delighted.

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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