Reality bites Rouse's Colombia dream

Metro Journal

METRO JOURNAL: Jessica Bacharach

May 09, 2001|By Jessica Bacharach

JAMES ROUSE had a dream that one day all people, despite their socioeconomic status, would convene at the community mailbox. His dream has been built into one of the nation's most famous planned communities, Columbia.

But Rouse's rosy vision is covered in the thorns of a society where poverty equals immorality, where subsidized housing is disdained by the middle class who dominate the area.

Somewhere in the midst of Rouse's dream, fear has enveloped our small town. It is this fear that drives civilians to move outward, away from what they must regard as hateful scenes of the less fortunate, which gives Columbia the characteristics of a miniature city.

In the fuzzy math that equals economic discrimination, material possessions add up to education. Those who do not possess the green are assumed to possess less brainpower.

It is these stereotypical assumptions that prompt discrimination and have created a hierarchy among Columbia's neighborhoods.

Columbia's schools have matured into the neighborhood barometer. Crime rates, wealth and academia are now determined by the neighborhood high school instead of facts and statistics because citizens move outward to gain access to Columbia's newer schools with the belief that newer is better.

But a more attractive facility doesn't add up to higher quality education. It's only another indication of Columbia's obsession with the pretty package.

Our materialistic society has blurred the lines of humanity and economic status. We as Americans measure a man by his car, not his ability. We choose to ignore the voice of our fifth-grade teacher, reminding us not to judge a book by its cover because appearance can be deceiving.

As a society, we fear poverty like an infectious disease. But as we skim the crime blotter in our daily newspaper and read of those frightening drug busts and indecent exposures, we must remember to fear the crime itself and not the neighborhood of individuals.

The white picket fence cannot protect suburbia from drugs, from petty crimes, from kids smashing mailboxes and a man urinating on your roadside lawn.

The wealthy, like the poor, have their share of unethical and immoral individuals. The only visible difference is the block number. Circumstance may lead to a road less traveled. A Yiddish proverb explains, "Everyone is kneaded out of the same dough but not baked in the same oven."

Overlooking the fear and seeing past the shield of economic status is a feat.

It is idealistic to believe that both the rich and poor could co-exist as neighbors, see past the mask of the material and remember Oliver Wendell Holmes' ingenious advice: "What lies beneath us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."

Only then could Rouse's fantasy truly be fulfilled. This is America, the homeland of equality, where any dream can mature into reality, and a daily gathering at the mailbox to discuss the kids, the clogging toilet and the past presidential election surely seems possible.

Today's writer

Jessica Bacharach is an intern with The Sun's Howard County bureau. She lives in Columbia.

Metro Journal provides a forum for examining issues of concern to the Baltimore region's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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