Yellowrose Court woke up to the trouble one night a few summers back.
As midnight approached, an 11-year-old boy sidled up to a light pole, aluminum bat in hand.
Clang! Clang! Clang!
The impact sent vibrations up the metal pole, bursting the filament. Jolted awake, Alan Feinstein looked outside and recognized the kid. A neighbor.
"When the lights go out on Yellowrose, that's when you know drugs are changing hands," says Feinstein, 47. "That's when you know there's trouble."
For decades, Yellowrose was just another block of young families in townhouses, a symbol of the diversity, upward mobility and community spirit that made the planned city of Columbia a national model.
But in recent years, the street has come to symbolize social and economic distress in pockets of Columbia. Some worried residents see a growing disparity between the idyllic image of Columbia as "The Next America" and the disillusioning reality of what has happened in older neighborhoods.
They see two Columbias.
There's the affluent community with a diverse population, strong schools, escalating property values, 84 miles of bicycle and walking paths, manicured parks and little crime. This is the place most people think of as Columbia: a once small, middle-class hamlet that has grown since its founding in 1967 into a sprawling unincorporated city of 88,000, with nine "villages" and a Town Center dominated by a mall and a man-made lake.
But another, unplanned Columbia is unfolding in areas scattered throughout the older sections of town, a disparate collection of stagnating neighborhoods, struggling schools and off-and-on trouble spots. They have no concentrated center, but some in town lump them together with a disparaging whisper as "Inner Columbia," conjuring an image of urban struggle that would have unsettled the town's founder, the late James W. Rouse.
In the past decade, people in these neighborhoods have seen rising crime, stagnating property values, increasing concentrations of lower-income families and faltering school test scores. Some current and former residents describe a new kind of urban flight, born of a suburban experience that fell far short of expectations. As an in- direct consequence, some worry that the town is beginning to segregate itself, upsetting the delicate racial and economic balance that Rouse worked so hard to construct.
What's happening in this second Columbia is a suburban rendering of the breakdown of America's big cities in the 1960s and 1970s. The aging of Columbia has exposed fault lines in Rouse's carefully drawn blueprint, offering important lessons to future city-builders.
The problems are by no means on the same scale as in a city like Baltimore. Many in Columbia live in quiet satisfaction, enamored of the town's successes. The rattling of Rouse's dream is only beginning to reverberate beyond the scattered old neighborhoods, jarring some people awake like the metallic clanging of a light pole.
Much at risk
To the town's staunchest advocates, much more is at stake than the fate of one community.
"At the risk of sounding dramatic, America [is at stake], because if it can't be done here, it can't be done," says Padraic M. Kennedy, who was president of the Columbia Association, the community's homeowners association, for 26 years. Kennedy strongly disputes the severity of the town's problems, but he sees the potential for decay.
"What else is at stake is the future and soul of Columbia. If Columbia can't address these issues and it starts to ignore these issues, in a sense, it's no longer Columbia."
To the most disaffected, though, the soul of Columbia isn't worth saving.
"I'd like to take Rouse and kick him in the ass," says Dorothy Verni, a single mother and the owner, for the time being, of a townhouse on Yellowrose. "I can't get out of here fast enough."
Verni moved to Columbia six years ago. Like most of her neighbors with children, she came not out of appreciation for Columbia's ideals, but for proximity to work and decent schools. She is not an original Columbia settler, and is no disciple of Rouse. She believes that the poor and subsidized housing have brought crime to her neighborhood.
She was agitated one day in May because a 9-year-old girl, a neighbor, came at her with a kitchen knife: "I called my real estate agent the next day."
Verni long ago had enough of Yellowrose Court, and wants to move out. Last year, she was unable to sell her house for what she paid for it - $116,000. Now she's going to try again.
"I'd come home crying. I'm telling you I lose it. I lose it," says the 46-year-old, who works at Motorola in Hanover. "I'm at a point where I'll go bankruptcy to get the hell out of here. You can always get another name and another Social Security number. No big deal. Oh, it's horrible."