It's not for everyone, but Columbia's always been for anyone

Diane Brown

July 05, 2011

Way back when Columbia was just being weaned from a bottle, a woman from Seattle told me how much she hated living in the then-New Town. "I thought I was moving to a city," she complained, "but there is absolutely nothing to do here. I hate it, and I'm leaving."

I told her that was a wonderful idea. "Yes," I said, "you should be happy where you live. Otherwise life becomes rather painful and pointless, and you wind up unhappy and sad. You should leave. You need to be someplace else."

I was completely serious in my assessment. No tongue in cheek, I empathized with her, as she had no commitment to the place, no kids in school, no male unit keeping her here. No problem. Get another job and go.

So as Columbia celebrates the start of its 44th year, I've been thinking about her and wonder if she found a nice home that meets her expectations and needs. I suspect that she did.

Columbia was a bit of an odd place in the beginning, I think, because many in the county, a good number of whom were farmers, were not sure what this place was going to be. There was even a rumor that the Russians, with whom America was still in a Cold War, had bought the land the farmers themselves were selling, and the denizens had no idea what they were going to do with it.

An exhibition center was set up in Simpsonville, at Guilford Road and Route 29, which then had one lane in each direction. That was a clue.

I think one of the most amazing things about Columbia is that, from the beginning, its inhabitants often spanned three generations. New parents, some of whom dubbed themselves "California East" because of their liberal outlooks, came first. They often were followed by one or more of their parents.

Why liberal? Simply because the state of Maryland was racially and religiously segregated.

When I am elsewhere, I have a most peculiar pattern. People ask me where I live, and I say, "Outside Washington, D.C." I've also noticed that saying "outside D.C." has become code for many others I've met who are, in the cultural sense, Columbia expatriates.

Let's put it this way. In the past, when I would say that I live in Columbia, Maryland, I would get responses such as, "Hmmm, Maryland. That's in New York, right?" Seriously, it has happened more than twice. I know that many of us are geographically challenged, but that response is right up there with one a college student from California gave me when I asked if he had ever been outside America. "Yes," he said, "I've been to Florida." And another fellow American asked me how long it takes to drive to England.

In the past, I used to tell people I live in Columbia, and they would not have a clue where that is, unless they'd read old magazines which usually defined Columbia as an "urban experiment," a term which founder James Rouse did not take kindly to.

"What? A city where people of different races and religions live side by side?" respondents in those 1960s and early '70s articles did say. "Interfaith centers? Sounds like a dream. It'll never work."

Rouse and his band of merry men and women can be proud of this piece of the world they brought to the world. They created a city and a culture that sends young people into the world and sees them return and start their own families. That's one of many definitions of a city.

My son tells of living in Oregon. "Where are you from, man?" he asked a guy who very much enjoyed the music he was playing.

"Outside D.C." the guy responded.

"Yeah, I'm from Columbia, too," my son said.

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