The next generation treks back to Columbia

Hometown: Lured by the suburb's amenities, the planned community's native sons and daughters are returning to raise their children.

July 28, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

When Karen Blue was a teen-ager growing up in Columbia, she used to call the place "Plastic City."

"I kept thinking that it wasn't the real world," she said. "It was a bunch of mannequins with two kids and a dog and a goldfish in the living room."

But after she grew out of her adolescent rebellion phase and decided she wanted to start a family, she was struck with the realization that she wanted that supposed perfect lifestyle she used to mock.

So she moved back to the idealized suburb with her husband to raise their daughter.

"I wanted her to experience what my parents were able to offer me here," said Blue, 36. "There's a reason why you want this for your children - it's a positive upbringing."

Blue is a member of an emerging legion of home-grown Columbians who are moving back to raise their families and calling the planned community home, again. They're becoming Columbia's second generation of residents and are bringing renewed commitment to the 35-year-old town.

They were raised in Columbia's early days, when developer James W. Rouse's vision of a community where everyone could live - regardless of race or financial status - was in clear focus. The sense of community was strong.

"It's a unique community, and I think the younger generation doesn't realize how unique it is because it's the only place they've lived and they take it for granted," said Columbia Councilwoman Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills, whose son recently moved back to the suburb. "But then they move away and begin to appreciate it."

When Blue returned to Columbia eight years ago, she moved to the Thunder Hill neighborhood in Oakland Mills where she had lived since she was 3. Her house is about a three-minute drive from where her parents live.

Her 6-year-old daughter, Shannon, attends Thunder Hill Elementary School and has the same physical education teacher, George Petrlik, who had taught Blue. Both generations use the same nickname, Mr. Petrpickle, for him because he eats a lot of pickles, Blue said.

While Blue and other members of the second generation say they are drawn to Columbia for some of the same reasons their parents raised them there - the many pools, parks and pathways, and the safe environment - they say it is not quite the ideal place they remember.

Blue was disappointed to see that Oakland Mills Village Center - a place for many of her childhood memories - is struggling.

The village's Metro Food Market closed last year, and a new grocery store has yet to move in. An Exxon gas station left the center, and a Royal Farms convenience store closed because of a string of robberies and low sales. (A Sam's Mart convenience store that opened last summer is succeeding.)

As a way to give back to the community and revitalize the area, Blue and her husband, Mark, opened the Blue Cow Cafe in Thunder Hill in September.

At the Blue Cow - with its co-operative exchange book and magazine racks and chess-board-painted tables - Blue is hoping to create an atmosphere that encourages residents to visit often and get to know each other better. She invites county political candidates to her cafe to meet residents. She lets Brownie troops bake dog biscuits in her ovens to give to county animal control.

"What I was trying to recapture was the essence of the village center that I remember when I was growing up - if you walked in there and did anything wrong, your parents found out about it before you got home," she said.

One of Blue's former classmates, Julie Simon, 36, was recently at Blue's cafe and said it was important to raise her 7-year-old daughter, Anna, in a area that had many tot lots and pools, where people can meet their neighbors.

"I was really surprised - I expected to come back and not know anybody," said Simon, who moved back to Columbia six years ago with her husband, Michael. "It's been kind of fun; there are two classmates from the same year I was who have children the same age [as Anna]."

But despite homecomings that are giving the growing suburb a small-town feeling, some of Columbia's second generation are finding the 95,000-pop- ulation town a little too busy. The bustling area, with luxury townhouses and apartments being built in Town Center and the McMansions in River Hill, is attracting people who are not particularly interested in Rouse's vision.

"I liked it a lot better when I was in middle school or high school," said Dave Russell, Barbara Russell's son. "There's a lot of people coming into Columbia that have no idea what Columbia was about 20 or 30 years ago. They just moved here because it was convenient."

Russell, 32, moved back to the area two years ago with his wife, Stephanie, who grew up in Wilde Lake, because they missed living in a town with nearby running paths, restaurants and gyms. But he said he is uncertain how long he will want to raise their 1-year-old daughter, Amanda, there.

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