Columbia's tragedy [Commentary]

The planned community now adds 'tragedy site' to its list of distinctions

January 27, 2014|By Peter Ephross

When James Rouse created Columbia nearly 50 years ago, he never imagined the Maryland town would be catapulted into the national consciousness as the site of the latest senseless shooting.

Unlike most postwar suburban communities, Columbia was planned, a product of 1960s-era idealism. Rouse — a shopping mall pioneer as well as the developer of Harborplace in Baltimore, Faneuil Hall in Boston, and South Street Seaport in New York City — founded Columbia on the notion that it is both possible and necessary to build safer, more livable cities. As Rouse was developing Columbia, which lies roughly halfway between Baltimore and Washington, he convened small groups made up of scholars and other intellectuals who discussed the best way to build housing, create schools, develop recreation and even provide for religion in the new town.

In 1969, my family moved to Columbia. My social-worker parents, like so many others, were attracted by Columbia's "utopian-lite" ethos, its walking path system and the abundance of outdoor space, but most of all, the idea that people of different backgrounds could live together. It was multiculturalism before the phrase joined the everyday lexicon — and at a time when restrictive real estate practices still existed in some of the surrounding communities in Howard County. The town's humanistic symbol was the metallic People Tree, with small statuettes of people, their hands outstretched toward the sky, replacing a tree's leaves.

My memories tell me that Rouse and his band of experts partially succeeded. Each neighborhood had a community pool and an elementary school, the routes to both of which were walkable. Several neighborhoods made up villages, each of which contained a shopping area known as a village center. Community mailboxes encouraged interactions among neighbors. Our local elementary school was a hotbed of pedagogical innovation, featuring open classrooms that allowed children to learn at their own pace. On our own cul-de-sac, children of different races played endless hours of kickball without any animosity or sense this was out of the norm.

Columbians of various religions worshiped at the same buildings, the local Interfaith Centers. I remember a Christian sign being taken off the walls as the Torah ark was wheeled in for our Jewish service. After our service, the ark was wheeled back out, and the Christian sign went back up. Even the mall seemed different: It featured many one-of-a-kind stores and was closed on Sunday, hosting a flea market where a friend and I used to buy vintage baseball cards.

As the Reagan era dawned, however, life in Columbia began to change. Perhaps it was just reflective of the times, or because I attended a high school that included children from an adjoining town, or, perhaps, simply because I became a teenager, but religious and racial problems seeped into my life. I heard anti-Semitic epithets used if a student was between two grades and the teacher didn't give the student the higher grade, and racial insults were heard at keg parties. More broadly, there were still economic divides. While each neighborhood contained housing for people of disparate economic groups, low-income housing was set off by itself, creating wealthier and poorer subdivisions. A few of the village centers, featuring shuttered storefronts, became magnets for crime.

Despite these problems, Columbia retained its ability to attract residents. Its proximity to two big cities helped, as did its strong schools. As recently as 2010, Money magazine named Columbia, along with neighboring Ellicott City, as one of the top places to live in the United States.

Unfortunately, in addition to that distinction, Columbia has now added its name to the list of American places where a tragedy occurred. Saturday's events are certainly not what James Rouse had in mind.

Peter Ephross is the editor of "Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words: Oral Histories of 23 Players." His email is

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