WHEN BARBARA and Charles Russell wanted to get married in 1966, they had to go to Washington because interracial marriages were not yet legal in Maryland.
As a white woman and a black man, they worried about finding a company that would rent an apartment to them in the state. Their friends warned them finding housing would be difficult. A lawyer could offer them only the insight that he hadn't heard of interracial couples being arrested in Maryland for living together.
In the summer of 1967, the Russells stopped by Bryant Gardens apartments in the raw new community of Columbia and were shocked when a rental agent asked whether they wanted to live there.
"We just put our money down that day simply because it was a place in the country that would rent to us," Barbara Russell said.
Today, Russell, 61, still lives in Columbia -- a sprawling real estate experiment that came to stand in the turbulent years that followed its start as a visionary expression of the American dream.
The vision came from James W. Rouse, an early developer of shopping malls who hoped to use Columbia to provide answers to some of America's most vexing social problems and to make a bundle of money while he was at it.
Many of Columbia's pioneers, as the community's first residents call themselves, were enticed by Rouse's promise -- people of diverse ethnic and economic classes would live side by side, an ambitious goal coming just a few years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a pivotal point for desegregation.
Community mailboxes, swimming pools, village shopping plazas and interfaith centers would bring people together and foster a welcoming environment. Most signs and other commercial clutter would be banned or hidden. Covenants would protect the carefully designed green landscape. Parks and recreation centers would be an easy walk from every home.
Rouse lived his Columbia dream in an expansive waterfront home in Wilde Lake, the community's first village, until his death in 1996.
Today, nearly two generations after the first bright promises, many others from the early years also are gone. Rouse's original vision of diversity and community fellowship has faded, many acknowledge.
Most newcomers pick Columbia these days for its amenities and convenient location. Economic and social diversity is not necessarily on their minds. Now, Columbians worry about crime and decay, just like folks elsewhere.
But this uncommon place still has a tight hold on the hearts of its pioneers. As Columbia prepares to celebrate its birthday this month, surprising numbers remain, and many have no intention of leaving.
"Unless something drastic happens, it's going to be feet first out," said George Martin, 71, one of Columbia's first residents.
It was in October of 1963 that the Rouse Co. announced it had purchased more than 14,000 acres to develop a community for about 100,000 people. Only about 48,000 people lived in all of Howard County at the time.
Rouse called his new city "The Next America" and pledged that Columbia would provide a better quality of life for all of its residents.
Side by side
Rouse "was very proud of the fact that the janitor and the boss could live in the same neighborhood," said his widow, Patty Rouse. "He said it worked out in his neighborhood because the woman that did some of the cleaning at the Rouse Co. lived in the same area of Wilde Lake that we live in."
People started moving into Wilde Lake apartments and houses in June and July of 1967, the year Maryland legalized interracial marriages, and Hollywood released Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, starring Sidney Poitier as half of an interracial couple.
In September of that year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People alleged that housing discrimination in Howard County "is about as effective and thorough as it is any place in the United States." At the same time, the organization singled out Columbia as a development where such prejudice was nonexistent.
Still, Columbia's new residents had something to learn about living together.
When the Russells, who have since divorced, moved into their apartment in July, another couple moving in a floor above assumed that Charles Russell was the complex's handyman and asked him to help them move in. He did -- and then he introduced himself as their neighbor.
"Jim Rouse might have talked about an open or integrated community, but people didn't have any experience with it," said Barbara Russell, who is a Columbia Council representative for the village of Oakland Mills, where she later moved. "It took a while for people to realize, `Oh, this means we're all living together, going to the store together, going to church together.'"
The first baby
When Russell gave birth to her first son Sept. 13, 1967, he was also Columbia's first baby -- a biracial child. Rouse couldn't have scripted it better.
"[Rouse] was really thrilled, and he talked about our family in those early years wherever he went," Russell said.