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Two cities emerge in Rouse's Columbia

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First of three articles.

Yellowrose Court woke up to the trouble one night a few summers back.

As midnight approached, an 11-year-old boy sidled up to a light pole, aluminum bat in hand.

Clang! Clang! Clang!

The impact sent vibrations up the metal pole, bursting the filament. Jolted awake, Alan Feinstein looked outside and recognized the kid. A neighbor.

"When the lights go out on Yellowrose, that's when you know drugs are changing hands," says Feinstein, 47. "That's when you know there's trouble."

For decades, Yellowrose was just another block of young families in townhouses, a symbol of the diversity, upward mobility and community spirit that made the planned city of Columbia a national model.

But in recent years, the street has come to symbolize social and economic distress in pockets of Columbia. Some worried residents see a growing disparity between the idyllic image of Columbia as "The Next America" and the disillusioning reality of what has happened in older neighborhoods.

They see two Columbias.

There's the affluent community with a diverse population, strong schools, escalating property values, 84 miles of bicycle and walking paths, manicured parks and little crime. This is the place most people think of as Columbia: a once small, middle-class hamlet that has grown since its founding in 1967 into a sprawling unincorporated city of 88,000, with nine "villages" and a Town Center dominated by a mall and a man-made lake.

But another, unplanned Columbia is unfolding in areas scattered throughout the older sections of town, a disparate collection of stagnating neighborhoods, struggling schools and off-and-on trouble spots. They have no concentrated center, but some in town lump them together with a disparaging whisper as "Inner Columbia," conjuring an image of urban struggle that would have unsettled the town's founder, the late James W. Rouse.

In the past decade, people in these neighborhoods have seen rising crime, stagnating property values, increasing concentrations of lower-income families and faltering school test scores. Some current and former residents describe a new kind of urban flight, born of a suburban experience that fell far short of expectations. As an in- direct consequence, some worry that the town is beginning to segregate itself, upsetting the delicate racial and economic balance that Rouse worked so hard to construct.

What's happening in this second Columbia is a suburban rendering of the breakdown of America's big cities in the 1960s and 1970s. The aging of Columbia has exposed fault lines in Rouse's carefully drawn blueprint, offering important lessons to future city-builders.

The problems are by no means on the same scale as in a city like Baltimore. Many in Columbia live in quiet satisfaction, enamored of the town's successes. The rattling of Rouse's dream is only beginning to reverberate beyond the scattered old neighborhoods, jarring some people awake like the metallic clanging of a light pole.

Much at risk

To the town's staunchest advocates, much more is at stake than the fate of one community.

"At the risk of sounding dramatic, America [is at stake], because if it can't be done here, it can't be done," says Padraic M. Kennedy, who was president of the Columbia Association, the community's homeowners association, for 26 years. Kennedy strongly disputes the severity of the town's problems, but he sees the potential for decay.

"What else is at stake is the future and soul of Columbia. If Columbia can't address these issues and it starts to ignore these issues, in a sense, it's no longer Columbia."

To the most disaffected, though, the soul of Columbia isn't worth saving.

"I'd like to take Rouse and kick him in the ass," says Dorothy Verni, a single mother and the owner, for the time being, of a townhouse on Yellowrose. "I can't get out of here fast enough."

Verni moved to Columbia six years ago. Like most of her neighbors with children, she came not out of appreciation for Columbia's ideals, but for proximity to work and decent schools. She is not an original Columbia settler, and is no disciple of Rouse. She believes that the poor and subsidized housing have brought crime to her neighborhood.

She was agitated one day in May because a 9-year-old girl, a neighbor, came at her with a kitchen knife: "I called my real estate agent the next day."

Verni long ago had enough of Yellowrose Court, and wants to move out. Last year, she was unable to sell her house for what she paid for it - $116,000. Now she's going to try again.

"I'd come home crying. I'm telling you I lose it. I lose it," says the 46-year-old, who works at Motorola in Hanover. "I'm at a point where I'll go bankruptcy to get the hell out of here. You can always get another name and another Social Security number. No big deal. Oh, it's horrible."

Last year there were nearly 100 calls to the police for the 60-townhouse street, including eight for assault, eight for destruction of property, seven for noise complaints, five for disorderly conduct, three for fighting and one for a stolen car.

Outside these homes, as throughout Columbia, there are few consistently obvious signs that anything is amiss - particularly in the winter or after a period of heavy police patrols. But the cul-de-sac at one end of the street comes unusually alive with activity at times, especially in summer, as cars stream through day and night and teen-agers hang out late in the darkness, fueling police and neighbors' suspicions of drug activity in some of the homes.

The 29-home cul-de-sac is the focus of concern on this wooded, horseshoe-shaped street. The other half of the street is much quieter, a typical demonstration that trouble can be just around the corner from tranquility.

On the cul-de-sac, too, some residents are content. Yellowrose Court helped them realize the suburban dream.

"When I came in, I knew that this was where I was supposed to be," says Catherine Alford, who bought her townhouse in 1984.

At the rowdiest of times in the past few years, Alford, 60, has prayed for peace and quiet on Yellowrose Court, usually late at night, kneeling at her windowsill overlooking the cul-de-sac.

But many others have left or, like Verni, at least tried. Alan Feinstein and his wife, Sondra Mandell, tried and failed to sell last year. So did the Mendez family eight doors down. They moved away and rented their place instead.

The White family, another few doors down, was able to sell last winter. Another man, his Jaguar stolen this summer by a former neighbor, put his house on the market last month. Two of the 29 townhouses on the cul-de-sac have been vacant for weeks.

This is the sort of Columbia neighborhood seen only by homebuyers looking near the bottom of the market. Any one of three major factors - the aging homes, the low school test scores, the fear of crime - can drive away prospective buyers in older Columbia.

The boundaries of older Columbia are loosely defined. It includes parts of at least five villages: the two oldest, Wilde Lake and Harper's Choice, which lie west of U.S. 29; and the east Columbia villages of Owen Brown, Oakland Mills and Long Reach, where Yellowrose Court sits a few blocks from the village center.

On a broader scale than on Yellowrose Court, some in these villages have witnessed the evidence that something is amiss: hundreds of families leaving neighborhoods and schools. Usually it is the more affluent who leave first, motivated by a desire to live in a community where their children can get an excellent education and play without worrying about violence, and to own a home that will appreciate in value.

Like Al Steinbach, the son of a New York cab driver, a 47-year-old husband and father of two who moved to Columbia in 1987. He lived on Treefrog Place in Long Reach until robbers broke into houses on either side of his, until there were shootings at the Long Reach Village Center, until he saw violent fights on his street.

Or Christina Lazdins, the Swedish-born homemaker and mother of three who decided she'd had enough of Long Reach when she heard that a neighbor's son was an armed-robbery suspect - or maybe it was when her son's bicycle was stolen from the garage in the middle of the night.

Her family moved from Crosshive Court two years ago to western Howard County, despite misgivings.

"I know that I didn't want to be part of some sort of trend dragging people out of a good area, because obviously friends started asking and coming out and saying, 'Boy maybe we should consider this, too,'" Lazdins says. "They realize, too, what's going on there. You could see that they worried when they saw what we were doing."

Diversity in doubt

Many of those leaving the older Columbia neighborhoods, like Lazdins and Steinbach, are white. Their decisions to move leave higher concentrations of less affluent and lower-income residents and of minorities, endangering Rouse's hope for a community in which blacks and whites, rich, poor and middle class all live in proximity.

"We were going to have this nice mixed community, which we still have in a way, but you can see it unmixing," says Natalie Lobe, a Realtor.

A former planner and an early Columbia settler, Lobe worries about the pattern of big-city migration repeating itself here: "You have most of the problems in one place and most of the lower-income people in one place, and everybody else takes to the outskirts."

Steinbach, who moved to Columbia's newest and most exclusive village, River Hill, says he considers himself a part of the exodus, but not for the same reasons people fled New York City in the 1960s.

"I grew up in the Bronx until I was 10. And the Bronx was mostly a blue-collar, white area," he begins, relaxing on his backyard deck. "And then when blacks started moving in, it changed very, very rapidly, because people were afraid to live near blacks. Today it's not so much that - I mean there's a black family right up the block here - I mean, who cares? It doesn't mean anything. So now it's more of an economic and a social difference as opposed to a racial difference."

The result, though, is that Steinbach sees a River Hill around him that is mostly white, in contrast to the more diverse Long Reach he left behind.

The subject of race is one of acute sensitivity to residents like Steinbach, who came to this town with an appreciation for its diversity.

"To me it's very ironic," he says. "I never thought of Columbia as a place where I would describe there being 'white flight' because of the nature of Columbia."

Rouse's vision

When Rouse launched Columbia in 1967, his ideal was to build an "open community" where people from diverse backgrounds could live and work together, regardless of race or income. His was one of the few new communities in the nation where middle-class African-Americans and society's poor were welcomed. He called it "The Next America."

Rouse took great pains to avoid the racial segregation of cities like Baltimore. He monitored home sales and, in a few cases, quietly steered African-American homebuyers away from certain streets to avoid creating all-black neighborhoods. He did the same with subsidized rental housing, urging that hundreds of low-income African-Americans be dispersed with whites throughout several buildings to ensure a racial mix.

"We directed the market because we were so concerned that we didn't want to create any all-black areas in Columbia," says Malcolm Sherman, head of residential land sales in the town's earliest days. "Jim was so adamant about not clustering people. ... He wanted all of the people mixed all over the place. That was the social goal."

To help accomplish that goal, he built his philosophy of dispersal into the town's blueprint. Instead of grouping apartment complexes and townhouses in one large downtown area, Columbia would spread that housing throughout the town's villages, each of which would have a retail hub, called a village center.

Most of the nine village centers, and many of the schools, are surrounded by apartments and townhouses, which in turn are surrounded by sprawling tracts of single-family homes.

In the early days of Columbia, this model worked well: Renters without cars could walk to the same village centers used by better-off families in single-family homes, and their children could all attend the same public schools.

Today, though, Rouse's efforts have only partly paid off.

Columbia is home to a thriving black middle class and a burgeoning immigrant population, and it is still a town where the poor can climb the economic ladder and give their children a good education. But in telling ways, Rouse's social goal is being undermined. His blueprint, a visionary model in its time, had a built-in time bomb.

While the affordable housing provided a continual flow of children as renters turned over, the families in single-family homes stayed longer and aged with the neighborhood, sending fewer children to school.

So the concentration of lower-end housing near services, a thoughtful planning device in the 1960s and 1970s, became a socioeconomic liability in the 1990s, as the schools began to have a disproportionate number of children from poorer families in the rental properties.

The schools projected an image of rising poverty, and families reacted. Hundreds of middle-class and more-affluent parents moved or took advantage of liberal transfer policies to send their children to school elsewhere. This helped transform the notion that some older neighborhoods were struggling from perception to reality.

Without a city government or a firm guiding hand to confront these issues, the forces of time and human nature have overcome the best of intentions and, some residents say with sadness or cynicism, exposed the folly of social engineering.

"Jim Rouse did something different," says a resigned Sara Gray, longtime resident of Yellowrose Court, "but you're not going to change people."

Some in the thriving black middle class are disappointed, like James and Melanie Jackson, who live in a Long Reach townhouse neighborhood not far from Yellowrose Court. Their memories of serenely coasting along Columbia's trademark bicycle paths are just a decade old, but are supplanted now by the foreboding sights of pit bulls and groups of loitering teens. Now neither will ride the bike paths to the shopping center, and they drive their children to Phelps Luck Elementary rather than let them take the short walk to school on the paths.

They still value living in a community where they feel welcome, echoing many other African-American, middle-class families who have moved to Columbia and put down roots. But the peaceful Utopia they thought they found 10 years ago is gone, and they expect to leave someday.

"What's going to wind up happening is that more people are going to wind up moving out of Columbia. And I really think that you see that right now," James Jackson says. "It's going to be really hard to reverse what's done."

Gray, Steinbach and some others also see little hope for a reversal. Those most likely to fight for Rouse's principles, the earlier settlers, are outnumbered by newer residents who view Columbia as an ideal suburb, but not an ideal in itself. Many, like Steinbach, reject the keystone of economic integration Rouse built into the town's plan: subsidized housing and concentrations of affordable apartments and townhouses around the village centers.

"This town was built on an ideal, with a Utopian idea, and there is no Utopia," Steinbach says. "When you start mixing private homes with subsidized housing, you're going to have a problem."

Section 8 and the Cadillac

Columbia has a long history of welcoming those at the bottom of the economic ladder, with subsidized rental housing dating back to the earliest days.

Today, though, the federally subsidized rental program, known as Section 8, is a scapegoat in older neighborhoods. For some on Yellowrose Court, rightly or wrongly, Section 8 conjures a series of negative images.

Here's one image: a big Cadillac, rolling into the neighborhood, delivering decline and ruin.

That's how some residents remember it happening one day in the fall of 1990. As Sara Gray recalls it, her small street was unaccustomed to change.

"It's a really small ecosystem," Gray says of the street, 60 townhouses on a little more than 6 acres. "And it's a delicate one, because we're really close together."

So when a woman on Yellowrose left the country and rented out her townhouse a decade ago, she introduced an element of chance: renters. In this case, it upset the ecosystem.

"They had a pimp, they had a great big Cadillac and the people in their house were selling their bodies," Gray says matter-of-factly. She and other neighbors say the tenants were Section 8, an assertion the then-landlord would not confirm.

The Cadillac left a few years later, when the landlord returned, but the image lingers. Even today, when police believe that some in owner-occupied properties may be dealing drugs, many neighborhood residents tend to blame renters, particularly Section 8 tenants.

Since the late 1980s, the number of renters on Yellowrose has inched upward. In 1985, homeowners recall, only one home of the 29 on the cul-de-sac half of the street was a rental. Now, as many as nine homes there have renters at any time, a few of them on some form of public assistance.

This reflects Columbia's dominant role in the rental market in Howard County.

With 88,000 people, the town has just a third of the county's population. But by design, it has the most geographically concentrated offerings of apartments, condominiums and townhouses. As these villages have aged, they have seen more rentals, and more subsidized rentals, in disproportion to the rest of the county.

Roughly half of all the nearly 6,000 rental homes, condos, townhouses and apartment buildings in the county are in Columbia's older villages.

And in the past six years, Howard County has seen a marked increase in families on Section 8 housing subsidies - from about 2,000 to about 2,500. More than 80 percent of those families have located in Columbia. Residents like Michele Williams, Richard Burk and Yellowrose's Verni say they've noticed this influx in their neighborhoods and, most clearly, in the schools.

"Columbia has ... all of the lower-performing schools, and I don't think it's unrelated that we have the majority of affordable housing," says Williams, an African-American homeowner in the Jeffers Hill Elementary School district in east Columbia.

Williams, a mother of two, stresses that the children from low-income families are just as able to learn, but the teachers and school staff need to be better-prepared for them.

"The kids who come from Section 8 housing have other needs, whatever they may be, and the teachers seem to not know how to deal with them, and they bring disciplinary problems, to some degree, which is disruptive to the whole classroom.

"You can compare it to, I guess, some of the schools in Baltimore," says Williams, who lost a bid for school board this year. "It's coming to Columbia."

Columbia like Baltimore?

The notion of Columbia becoming like Baltimore might seem absurd. Yet dozens of people interviewed repeated it, and Richard Burk behaves as if it's true.

Raised in a public housing project in Lancaster, Pa., in the 1950s and '60s, Burk never slept then as he does now, with a .40-caliber Smith and Wesson within reach. "I don't like the man I've become," says the 49-year-old computer systems administrator, and neither does his wife.

If Burk wants to know whether any would-be intruders are outside his townhouse in Owen Brown Village, he just flips on the television in front of his bed, which connects to the low-light video surveillance system he installed last year.

He doesn't think he's overreacting. He notes that his Greenleaf neighborhood, in some ways like Yellowrose Court, has had an off-and-on history of crimes in recent years, from drug dealing to car break-ins to shots fired to less tangible offenses, like young men silently intimidating people driving through the neighborhood by standing in front of the drivers' cars.

This spring, a 40-year-old man was robbed at rifle-point by a hooded teen-ager on Cradlerock Way, at the outskirts of Greenleaf, on a Monday evening at 9 p.m. It was the second of three rifle robberies on the streets of Owen Brown in a 24-hour span.

Police later arrested five teen-agers, ages 15 to 17, in connection with the robberies. Four of them were from or near Greenleaf, including one on Burk's rectangular cul-de-sac of townhouses. Burk automatically figures that one or more of the suspects may have been from Section 8 properties, though he has no way of knowing.

"The problem properties are not always Section 8, but they usually are," he says. "I know the eventuality for Columbia, like every other American city, is we're gradually being ghettoized, and Columbia will develop pockets of higher-crime areas."

That kind of talk irks Leonard Vaughan, executive director of the county Housing Commission.

"Columbia is a city. It will have crime. But it's not having crime because it has Section 8 clients. Most of the people that we have on our program are honest, hard-working people," he says. "It's just easier [for critics] to try to find an easy answer, an easy solution to a very hard problem. And the reality is there really aren't any easy answers."

Section 8 as scapegoat

Often, Vaughan says, the reality simply isn't what residents think it is. Listen to Yellowrose Court's Verni, on a day her house was broken into last fall:

"You know what the problem with this street is? I'll tell you what's wrong with this street. Section 8. That's what the problem is," she said. Then she extended her right arm and jabbed her index finger at four houses in succession: "This Section 8 moved in. That Section 8 moved in. That Section 8 moved in. That Section 8 moved in. We're surrounded by Section 8."

The houses she pointed to certainly were problem houses on the street. One was home to the boy who would ring in the drug trade by knocking out street lights; another was the place where a high school football player was jumped and beaten last year; another was the house of a teen-ager believed responsible for planning that attack. Yet another was a suspected base of drug activity for at least a couple of years, a target of police investigations that produced several arrests in the area last year.

But it turns out only two of those four houses were actually Section 8.

The race issue

Some days, until this summer, a black Lexus would roll through the street and stop out front of one of the Section 8 homes, arousing neighbors' suspicions, which in turn outrages the woman who lived there.

"They're playing the race card," says Darlene Holmes, 40. Her white neighbors, she says, associated everything bad with her and other black neighbors.

Holmes moved to Yellowrose five years ago, her Miami-area apartment having been torn to shreds by Hurricane Andrew a few years earlier. She'd fallen in love with Columbia while visiting relatives in 1990.

But she says she faced something strange that she never confronted in Miami: an integrated block.

"I didn't live around a bunch of white people. I'd see them, deal with them when I had to. But just knocking on my door, looking you in the face, I didn't live like that."

Holmes says she "adjusted" to her new racial environment, but her neighbors didn't. Their stares were getting to her. She moved to another neighborhood in Columbia at the end of the summer.

"Everybody they suspect that comes to your house has got to be a drug dealer," she says. The Lexus driver is a family friend, she says, who owns a lawn-care business.

"Nobody needs to be driving a Lexus to be a drug dealer. No drug dealers come to my house."

Race, though, plays only an intermittent role in the collection of images and events that shaped perceptions of a decade of decline in older Columbia.

Between the days of the Cadillac and the Lexus, Al Steinbach, James Jackson, Sara Gray and others gradually grew uneasy with their surroundings.

They have differing notions of when Columbia changed for them: five years ago, eight years ago, 10 years ago. Trying to pinpoint the changes can be like trying to discern discrete objects in an Impressionist painting. It's never quite clear where one thing ends and another begins.

Christina Lazdins' husband, Juris, formerly of Long Reach's Crosshive Court, detected a subtle shift from random neighborhood graffiti to a more urban art form sometime during the 1990s, maybe about five years ago.

He and James Jackson were troubled by the evolution of the neighborhood dogs they each encountered on the bike paths over the past decade, from poodles and mutts to pit bulls.

For Steinbach, who lived on Treefrog Place in Long Reach, the first hint of something different was as amorphous as the feel of the street, of kids hanging out, nearly a decade ago.

Gray became a self-appointed watchdog for signs of decay on Yellowrose Court, whether it was slashed car tires, broken streetlights, a possible pimp or suspected drug dealing.

"Our neighborhood has changed drastically in the last six years," Gray says. The community tot lot is stark testimony to that: Five years ago, the children of Yellowrose still played there. Today, all that remains are two worn, metal animals on springs; the swing set, slide and sandbox are gone, removed by homeowners several years ago.

"People started doing drugs down there, and dealing. It got to the point where the big kids were scaring the little kids away," Gray says, recalling the first serious signs of trouble in the early-to-mid-1990s. "Things started going downhill pretty rapidly."

These scattered perceptions of unsettling change have been powerfully reinforced by headline-grabbing crimes. The past year has seen a string of them, reinforcing hard feelings in the four older Columbia villages with the toughest problems.

There's this month's stabbing death of a 14-year-old Long Reach girl; the late September stabbing death in an Oakland Mills apartment; September's double shooting across from an elementary school in Harper's Choice; the August stabbing death of a man in a Long Reach apartment; the string of rifle robberies on the streets of Owen Brown this spring; last November's double murder on an Oakland Mills bicycle path in the afternoon sun.

Crime and fear

Such crimes, more common on some of Baltimore's worst streets, have a magnified impact in these Columbia neighborhoods, where some moved in thinking they had found a haven from the city.

"I heard that many times: 'I moved here to get away from crime. Therefore there should be no crime,'" says Howard County Executive James N. Robey, who served as police chief for much of the past decade.

Robey believes that the fear of crime is worse than the reality and that people move to Columbia with "unreasonable expectations," only to become disillusioned and disaffected.

But he also believes there is an underlying truth to residents' complaints: The older neighborhoods face steep challenges.

"I'm proud of our low crime rate. I'm proud of our quality of life," he says. "But that doesn't mean we're without problems."

This spring and summer were relatively quiet on Yellowrose Court - just a couple of attempted break-ins, an arson fire, a stolen car and a few altercations.

Youths no longer brazenly smash out street lights, but the wounds of rougher days are still raw, and visible. In the base of one street pole is a crude rectangular hole, clawed out by young men looking for another creative way to turn out the lights. There's a small gap in the drapes of one window, so the couple inside can track visitors to the cul-de-sac with a video camera.

And the police are still watching. They made several drug busts in the area last fall, including an arrest of a Yellowrose resident in an alleged open-air drug market near the street. Police said they found crack cocaine hidden in the young man's jock strap, but a judge threw out the misdemeanor possession charges against him, ruling that police did not have probable cause to make an arrest. Several other Yellowrose residents have drug charges pending or are on parole or probation.

"We're receiving intelligence that there is still drug dealing going on in Yellowrose and in the Long Reach area," says Sgt. Mark Joyce, who supervises undercover narcotics officers. "We're going to go back. No question."

Some exhausted homeowners, like Gray and Verni, are certain the street will never be as idyllic as in its earliest days, and they still talk about selling. Some renters and homeowners, like Alford, are more stoic.

"I never thought it was a bad, bad neighborhood," says Alford. She believes Yellowrose's troubles have been overstated, and are in the past. "I've never known anybody to get killed or murdered on this street."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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  • About this series

    Part I Two cities emerge in Rouse's Columbia Jim Rouse was a legendary developer, and Columbia is his masterwork. But many wonder whether his vision of economic and racial integration can endure. -------------------- Part II Drooping test scores spur school exodus Many affluent families...

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