Like the residents of this 33-year- old town, Jim Robey and Padraic Kennedy see two different Columbias -- one grappling with urban decay, the other prospering.
Kennedy, who led the town for 26 years as the first president of the Columbia Association, sees a thriving town with a few minor issues that surely will be resolved.
But Robey, the Howard County executive, is distressed about older neighborhoods in decline, with school and crime problems in need of immediate attention.
Their divergent perceptions reflect broader disagreement in the community over how much must be done, and how urgently. A growing number of leaders fear Columbia's successes have overshadowed festering problems that could undermine the town's idealistic foundation.
"The decay, it's like an infestation of termites," Robey says. "Once it starts, if you don't stop it, if you don't correct it, it just spreads and spreads and spreads. And we've seen it in cities where there's been a deterioration."
The executive and former Howard police chief has heard the complaints in older Columbia neighborhoods for the past decade: rising crime, stagnant property values and lagging school test scores.
This discontent has contributed to the flight of hundreds of middle-class families, either to more exclusive subdivisions or out of town altogether. The late James W. Rouse's plan for economic and racial balance in "The Next America," as he called Columbia, is being undermined by the forces of time and human nature.
Robey believes that if these trends are not addressed, Howard County could become "divided" between rich and poor, with many of the poor isolated in older Columbia.
"Yesterday was the time to deal with it, but that's gone. We have to deal with it now."
Watching closely are community activists like Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County. An original settler in this planned community, he worries that not enough people feel the urgency of ensuring that an integrated suburb can prosper.
"This is it for African-Americans," Howell says. "There's a lot of hope riding on the success of Columbia, Maryland. And being in the minority, being an African-American, we want as many Columbias as we can get in this country."
Restoring the damaged reputations of Columbia's older schools and neighborhoods will require deep communitywide commitment and patience. Experts and some community leaders say Columbia, the school board and the county will need to take strong actions. Many of the solutions they recommend have failed in America's big cities, but advocates are hopeful that Columbia has the resources and the time to turn its trends around.
Among the proposals:
End or curtail school transfers. Desegregation experts, like Harvard University's Gary Orfield and the Johns Hopkins University's James McPartland, say a permissive policy of "open enrollment" has likely played a pivotal role in upsetting the population balance of older Columbia neighborhoods and schools. The school board has suspended the policy for one year while it studies the issue, but it will be politically difficult to take away from parents the right to switch their child's public school.
Barring transfers also could have the unintended effect of pushing some families to leave older neighborhoods more quickly.
But some in Columbia believe that it could quickly stabilize the schools, and experts consider the issue important. "Transfer polices that permit students to exit integrated neighborhoods are extremely destructive," Orfield says. "Transfer policies of that sort should be looked at immediately."
Devote still more resources to schools with concentrations of children from low-income families, sending a clear message that the quality of education at older Columbia schools will not suffer. New schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke has taken a bold step that could help in Columbia, announcing last month that he will require individual reports on every third-grader in the county who is behind in reading or math.
Another potential reform would be the transformation of some Columbia schools into magnet schools, which might lead to the busing of some students. Howard County has a technology magnet program at two Columbia high schools, in Long Reach and River Hill, but no magnet programs in elementary or middle schools, and no full-fledged magnet schools at any level.
Make racial integration a goal in subsidized housing, says Orfield, who calls federal Section 8 subsidies a "resegregating housing program."
"They should certainly look at the Section 8 program and put some integration counseling into it, so that not all the black families are put in areas with segregated schools," he says. "You can't cure a problem of resegregation when it gets to be serious in both the housing and school sectors without having an intentional program to create and foster integration in both schools and housing."