Steve Drakos has been volunteering at Columbia festivals for the past 20 years. But yesterday's fair marking the Howard County community's 40th birthday gave him the opportunity to reflect on what Columbia means to him.
"Lots of people in communities, they grow up there," said Drakos, 55, a resident for 34 years. "Columbia was all new people, and it's kept with its original vision of ethnic diversity, socioeconomic diversity."
That diversity was the unofficial theme yesterday as people of all ages and nationalities gathered for the 40th Birthday Celebration City Fair along the shore of Lake Kittamaqundi. Fairgoers enjoyed the carnival rides and games, ate foods including boardwalk fries and jerk shrimp sandwiches, and stopped by community booths highlighting causes and religions.
This weekend's live entertainment is just as varied, mixing childrens' events with a dozen types of music and dance.
The fair started Friday evening with music and fireworks, and it wraps up at 9 o'clock tonight. This afternoon, an eight-layer birthday cake more than 3 feet tall will be cut in a ceremony that will also include 3,000 cupcakes.
About 50,000 were expected to take part in the celebration this weekend, said Cynthia Coyle, who heads the fair committee. That's probably more than twice the crowd at the usual yearly celebration, the Columbia Festival of the Arts, she said. And it's half the population of the community.
"There are people standing in the booths, and they're people you know, and it's almost like a nice social visit," Coyle said. "I think what's happening here is people are feeling very, very connected."
This weekend's fair is part of a 40-day birthday party that started June 6 with the Festival of the Arts kickoff and ends July 15.
Columbia's city fair is a longtime, if sporadic, tradition. The community started having fairs shortly after it was founded, Coyle said, but gave them up about 15 years ago in favor of the Festival of the Arts.
Last year, the Columbia Association, which governs the community, brought the fair back, budgeting $100,000 for it, Coyle said.
Revenues from advertisers, vendors and T-shirt sales brought in an additional $90,000, said event planner Vikki Herald, owner of Bowie-based The Party Connoisseur.
Despite the earlier threat of rain, by midafternoon yesterday the sun shone bright and hot and the fair became packed with people buying cool drinks and trying to find ways to stay in the shade.
A crowd formed under the sun to watch one of the popular attractions, the Ballet with Cindee Velle performers. The troupe of seven girls danced for an hour to classical music and modern pop hits.
"We only had one practice for this," said dancer Victoria Rufolo, 12, of Woodstock.
"The dressing room was hot," added Kristy Lowenkron, 12, of Columbia.
Dancer Carlena Zayac, 13, said she has been happy to live in Columbia for the past decade.
"Like, everything's here," she said. "There's like all these places to shop and places to swim. People are nice."
That feeling is what developer James W. Rouse envisioned when he founded Columbia in 1967. From the start, Columbia was planned as a diverse community built to reduce urban sprawl. Columbia's original design, a coalition of small, distinct neighborhoods with their own business and entertainment centers, remains to this day. Each "village" has its own group mailbox, which also serve as neighborhood hangouts, Coyle said.
One lakeside booth, run by the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, featured a city trivia game. Players hadn't been faring too well, said coalition member Philip Kirsch.
One question read, "Who has been the only head coach of the Wilde Lake High School football team?"
"We had someone who graduated from Wilde Lake High School, and they didn't know the answer," Kirsch said.
That blunder does not represent Columbia's sense of community, which has made the community what it is, said Coyle, who traveled the world as a Navy nurse before retiring there.
Said Coyle: "Of all the places I've lived in the world, this is where I wanted to come."