Utterly novel appearance for Columbia

Fiction: An adolescence spent in Maryland's well-known planned community inspires Stephen Amidon's fifth book, `The New City.'

February 29, 2000|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

Stephen Amidon doesn't really remember Columbia all that clearly.

He can still find his way back to the comfortable brown house on Camelback Lane where he lived during early adolescence.

And he remembers how the trees, as new as everything else in the meticulously planned community, were just baby saplings when his family moved there in the early 1970s.

But he has lived in so many other places since then: New Jersey, North Carolina, London, Massachusetts. When he thinks back to Columbia, Amidon doesn't recall the precise layout of streets or the exact record of the Oakland Mills Scorpions' first football team, even though he was quarterback.

There is, however, one image that stands out starkly in his mind: The drowning.

No matter how much time passes, no matter how much distance separates Amidon and the town that was his home for a while, he'll never forget that Fourth of July picnic on Lake Kittamaqundi.

"I saw them pull him out," Amidon said recently as he stared out over the icy surface of the lake. "It was horrible. This boy just fell out of a paddle-boat, and he couldn't swim. And that image of someone drowning in a man-made lake, where just a few years before it was a cow pasture it was a starting point for my book."

The book -- "The New City" (Doubleday, $24.95) -- is what brought Amidon back to Columbia last week, for the first time in 25 years. It makes sense that Columbia was a stop on his national book tour, since the novel borrows liberally from both the city's and Amidon's pasts.

Although Amidon researched the planning of Columbia as a jumping-off point for the novel, he is quick to point out that "The New City" is a work of fiction -- just as the characters in it, while inspired by some of his former neighbors, are mostly creations of his imagination.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Columbia would catch the resemblance between the city and the novel's fictional town of Newton, which a city planner, speaking in the book, describes this way:

Newton's citizens would work where they lived, in landscaped business parks that housed new industries like telecommunications and computers. They would shop in nearby village centers and worship under the discreetly steepled roofs of interfaith centers. Most important, the city would contain a careful mix of middle-class and subsidized housing. People of different races and backgrounds would live together here. There would be no ghettos of poverty or privilege.

But Amidon deliberately avoided coming back to Columbia during the five years it took him to write the book. "I didn't want to do too much research because I didn't want to be in a position where people were saying I got it wrong," he said.

Instead, Amidon uses the novel to convey the jumble of emotions moving to Columbia brought out in him as a teen-ager. Here was a quirky, hopeful place that -- despite the best of intentions -- couldn't easily overcome human failings.

Though whites and blacks were supposed to live in harmony, Amidon sometimes experienced a different reality. Once, for example, the writer, who is white, was walking with a black friend when other black teen-agers began harassing Amidon's friend, calling him an "Uncle Tom." That scene, with some tweaking, appears in the novel.

In the book, the experiment that is Newton eventually fails. Set in the summer of 1973, "The New City" traces the intertwined lives of three families -- two white and one black. Racial tensions seethe, and a major structural failure proves to be the city's undoing. And, of course, there is a drowning in "Lake Newton."

The book, Amidon's fifth, has captured glowing reviews: "Absolutely riveting" (Newsday); "a rare achievement" (New York Post) and "impressively imagined and controlled" (Entertainment Weekly).

Reactions of Columbia residents have been more mixed. When Amidon appeared on a -WAMU-FM radio program broadcast, for instance, callers complained that he had painted Columbia in an unflattering light.

"This book is not slamming Columbia," Amidon countered. "It's just set in a place like Columbia."

He got a much better reception when he read excerpts from "The New City" at a Border's bookstore in Columbia last week.

"I bought [the book] to support him, and because I enjoyed his reading," said Jessie Newburn, who praised his well-drawn characters. Like Amidon, she moved to Columbia in 1971, when she was only 7 years old. Amidon, she said, stressed that although "he got the idea from Columbia, this is not an autobiography."

Though in his novel the planned city fails, Amidon views Columbia differently.

His feelings for the city are complex -- in some ways, he thinks that Columbia, in trying to be all things to all people, lacks soul. And yet, even as the geographic specifics and other details about the city have faded from his mind, the image that endures is one of hope.

"[Planner James] Rouse was an amazing man," he said. "This was his dream, to build the city. He really believed this kind of city would make people better.

"In a lot of ways," Amidon said, "I think it did work."

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