Chronicling Columbia and loving it

August 10, 2005|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Barbara Kellner says she is a New Yorker at heart - and she says it with a hint of a distinct New York accent.

But the decor of her office suggests that New York, N.Y., has stiff competition: Columbia, Md.

On one wall hangs a painting of a pastel birthday cake with "Happy Birthday Columbia" written on it. On her table-like desk is a plaque labeling it as the onetime property of James W. Rouse, the real estate developer who brought Columbia to life. And on the desk is a book she wrote, titled Columbia.

"The history of Columbia is fascinating, and I absolutely love it," says Kellner, who since 1992 has managed the Columbia Archives, the repository for the city's history. "But most people don't wake up in the morning and say, `I'm going to read about Columbia.' "

Kellner's book is a photographic tour of Columbia, past and present. It is a culmination of her 20 years as a historian - and fan - of the city. The book was released this spring as part of the "Images of America" series by Arcadia Publishing.

"The more I learned about Columbia, the greater it got for me," she says. "So, my mission is to bring it out and make everybody else believe that it's this great."

An enthusiastic real estate agent and a slide show at the city's exhibit center in the summer of 1983 taught Kellner the first things she learned about the Columbia. Her late husband, Jeff, was being transferred to the region from New Jersey, and they were house shopping. They had lunch one day by Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia's Town Center.

"I thought, `This is like a resort, and people live here,' " Kellner says. "I couldn't believe we would actually be living in this place. There was no question - we were going to move to Columbia."

When her children, Adam and Aime, went to school that fall, Kellner volunteered at the newly formed Columbia Archives in hopes of learning more about her new hometown.

"They gave me stuff to read, and I never stopped," she says.

What she read was a history of Columbia that had begun 20 years earlier, when Rouse, dissatisfied by what he saw as the "unmanaged, sprawling, oppressive growth" of American suburbs, persuaded the Howard County government to let him build a "rational city" on about 14,000 acres of farmland his company had cobbled together.

He broke ground in June 1966 on Wilde Lake, Columbia's first subdivision. Columbia's first residents began moving in a year later.

Kellner met some of those "pioneers" when she began volunteering at the archives.

"There was such a spirit among the early residents," she says. "I just took in all of their enthusiasm."

That enthusiasm and the differences she saw between her new home and the New Jersey suburbs where her family had lived made her a true believer.

In Columbia, she found a tight-knit community and the racial diversity she had experienced growing up in New York but missed later on living in the New Jersey suburbs that she says "lacked an identity." In fact, Kellner says, racial integration in Columbia's neighborhoods and schools surpassed what she experienced growing up in Queens.

She liked the effect it had on her children.

"What they learned was that people are people, and the color of their skin has nothing to do with it," she says.

When the archives became part of the Columbia Association, the city's governing body, in 1992, Kellner was hired as manager. She oversees the photographs, maps, books, real estate brochures, board games and other memorabilia that Columbia residents have donated to the archives over the years.

"A guy walked in a few weeks ago and gave us this," she says, holding up a faded Columbia-edition Frisbee.

Most of Kellner's time, however, is spent telling people about Columbia's history and Rouse's vision for the city. Kellner, 59, gives walking tours around the Town Center lakefront and organizes art shows and bike rides to promote the city's history and culture. She also is host of Columbia Matters, a television talk show sponsored by the Columbia Association that airs Mondays and Saturdays.

"I make it my business to find out what's going on in Columbia today, and how it all fits," she says.

"She is a die-hard Columbian," said Robin Emrich, a professionally trained archivist hired in 1998 to help Kellner preserve and organize the archives' holdings. Emrich says Columbia, home to about 101,750 people, has "warts" just as other cities do, but she agrees with Kellner that it is a nice place.

Robert Tennenbaum, one of the early Columbia residents who inspired Kellner, acknowledges that Columbia has not met all of its lofty goals. As an example, he notes a scarcity of affordable housing for teachers, police officers and firefighters.

But Tennenbaum and Emrich both say Columbia is a different kind of city. They also agree on one advantage it has over other cities: Barbara Kellner.

"She could sell Columbia to anybody," Emerich says.

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