Bridging the differences

Villages: River Hill and Wilde Lake are a study in Columbian contrasts, but they want to find common ground.

March 31, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

On one end of town, school boosters are flush enough to raffle off a Camaro. The day spa is so busy that massage tables built to last for 10 or 20 years wear out in three. From the McMansion-lined streets to the supermarket sushi chef, the place screams "yuppie."

On the other end, more than one in 10 high school kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Late 1960s and 1970s split-levels sit beside subsidized housing. If there's a prevailing culture, it's hippie, centered on a landmark merchant who stocks "texturized vegetable protein chunks" and cream "cheese" made of tofu.

River Hill and Wilde Lake, the newest and oldest of Columbia's 10 villages, are worlds apart in many ways - so different that they've launched what amounts to a foreign exchange program between them.

Like the programs that ship students overseas to explore other cultures, the "River Wilde" partnership aims to help both villages appreciate their differences - and discover how much they have in common.

"If we can bridge the gap, anyone can," said Ed Stern, who represents River Hill on the Columbia Council.

Village officials are tossing around ideas for picnics, fairs, receptions, charity walk-a-thons and two-village town meetings to bring residents of the areas together. The River Hill and Wilde Lake village boards, which held their first joint session March 18, talked about meeting regularly to tackle long-range issues affecting both villages and Columbia as a whole. The venture is also a political alliance, forged to combat stereotyping that irks both villages.

Wilde Lakers say they're unfairly viewed as land-that-time-forgot pioneers who cling to a Columbia that no longer exists. River Hillers complain that they're cast as a crass upper-class who don't give a hoot about the town's founding ideals.

"These stereotypes are really used to discredit us a lot," said Councilman Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake, who dreamed up the partnership.

"When you use it to dismiss the importance of what they're saying because they're rich or they're poor, because they've been here forever or because they've only been here three months - `You guys are the sort of rich people who don't care about anything but yourselves.' And we're the poor old people who ... are just whining because we want it the way it used to be.

"If River Hill is getting beat up, it's going to be Wilde Lake who's going to step up first and say, `No.'"

There's no denying that the two villages have strong personalities that stand out.

As the first village, Wilde Lake is considered closest to the ideals of developer James W. Rouse, who began building the groundbreaking town in 1967 for people of all races, religions and incomes. Affluent and poor would live side by side, send their children to the same schools, shop at the same stores.

The plan had changed by the time the Rouse Co. started building Columbia's last village about 10 years ago. River Hill has nothing but upscale housing. The average price of a house there is $436,000, said Matthew Lancelotta, a Realtor with Re/Max Columbia.

More than meets the eye

In Wilde Lake, the average is $130,000, though the range is considerable - from Section 8 apartments to high-end single-family houses. The asking price for a five-bedroom split-level with golf course view for sale in the Running Brook neighborhood is $324,900.

River Hill is less diverse than the rest of Columbia, though it is hardly the all-white enclave that critics make it out to be. River Hill High School is about 78 percent white, 6 percent black, 15 percent Asian, and 1 percent Hispanic.

Wilde Lake High is 53 percent white, 36 percent black, 8 percent Asian, and 3 percent Hispanic.

Both villages are among the most vocal and community-spirited, though for different reasons.

Wilde Lake boasts a large contingent of "pioneers," original Columbia settlers who see themselves as the keepers of the community flame. During the "resident speak-out" portion of Columbia Council meetings, more often than not the speaker is from Wilde Lake.

River Hill residents are active, too, in part because the new village is waiting for some of its walking paths to be built and weighing where to locate playgrounds. There are also a lot of families with young children in the schools.

As much as he plays down Wilde Lake stereotypes, Feldmark seems to embody its 1960s free spirit. The son of early settlers, who moved to Wilde Lake in 1969, Feldmark, 26, wears his hair in a long ponytail and heads a nonprofit environmental group. He changed his name when he got married last year, merging his Feldmesser with his wife's last name, Mark.

'Diversity is good'

On paper, his cross-town counterpart sounds like the poster boy for busy River Hill professionals. Stern owns two advertising agencies, Stern Agency and Redhead Interactive. He handled the IKEA account in the mid-1980s, when the Swedish company started selling its furniture in the United States. He has lived in town for less than five years.

But Stern, 46, isn't the yuppie ad executive from central casting, unless the casting director is from Ed, the television series about a bowling-alley lawyer.

Stern is soft-spoken and boyish. He wears his hair long, plays drums in a basement rock band and serves on the board for Grassroots, a crisis intervention center. His business Web site features a picture of him holding a Howdy Doody puppet. His office has a bowling lane - installed for a party and left in place as a quirky workplace perk.

"We're still different, but diversity is good and diversity when you play together is even better," Stern said. "I'm just a real proponent of all of us playing. That's what I think we're supposed to be about."

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