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News Opinion Editorial

Columbia drab? Duh. [Editorial]

Here at the editorial board of The Sun, we like to give Columbia a little good-natured ribbing from time to time. James Rouse's planned community has gotten enough critical accolades in the national press since its opening in 1967 — for its efforts at integration of races and classes, suburban amenities like pools and paths and even its stab at interdenominational harmony with shared "interfaith centers" — that we assumed it could handle a few laughs about its peculiar street names.

Flamepool Way, Bare Bush Path, Oven Bird Green, the late (unlamented) Coon Hunt Court. Yikes. But for the last one, Howard Countians don't appear to be rushing out to rename them, so we just assumed they all had a sense of humor. Plus, they've probably been laughing all the way to the bank: Howard County has the highest median income in Maryland at $105,692, according to the most recent census, and their public schools are widely acknowledged as some of the best in the state.

But now we have our doubts. The latest issue of New York magazine includes a profile of actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus in which — rather deep in the piece — the writer casually mocks Columbia as being "neither here nor there" and "one of the dreariest American landscapes imaginable." The actress appears to offer a similar view when she admits that if it wasn't for the fact that her work with the TV show "Veep" has been good, "it would be like prison."

The proper response to such kvetching should be this: ho-hum. The idea that a New York writer might hold a condescending view of anything not located in Manhattan (and even then, only certain parts) should not be shocking. Before writer Jonathan Van Meter goes about trashing Columbia, he's already exhausting a greater reservoir of ink trashing the lobby bar of The Four Seasons Hotel ("Everything about this place is dated, and I mean that in the worst possible way…"). Ms. Louis-Dreyfus, the "Seinfeld" vet and native New Yorker, was just replying in their shared tongue. She's also since clarified the quote on Twitter to note that she was referring to the warehouse where episodes are taped and that she otherwise "loves Maryland."

Incidentally, the technical term for such a self-absorbed and snotty magazine piece — and we don't mean to get too writerly about it — is snark. New York readers love this stuff. When Manhattanites refer to New York as the greatest city in the world, they don't do it as a sales pitch or, heaven forbid, ironically, but as a deeply-held conviction. Such a remarkable lack of self-doubt, even by the most poorly-traveled island denizen, is one of the city's defining traits. As John Updike once observed, "The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding."

Unfortunately, some in Howard County appear to have taken offense. And that includes County Executive Ken Ulman who quickly pulled together a video response with this top minions praising Columbia up one side and down the other. Exhibits offered in defense of the community included a planned lakefront Whole Foods grocery, the annual Wine in the Woods festival and the fact that actor Edward Norton, grandson of Mr. Rouse, is from there. Though offered tongue-in-cheek, Mr. Ulman's presentation on social media had the sort of cloying earnestness once associates with summer interns, pre-school teachers and aspiring singers on prime-time TV. Why Mr. Ulman didn't simply Sound-of-Music his Columbia pitch with a youthful community theater cast and some Fisher-Price props is beyond us.

Hmm, this snark thing appears to be contagious.

In any event, we trust that Columbia will bounce back from being described as a boring, nondescript suburb. Heck, at some level, all suburbs are a bit drab. People like drab. Why does every Starbucks look the same inside? Why do the same dozen restaurant chains plant their flags in every 'burb? Why does everyone drive an SUV with a Ravens bumper sticker? If we can't laugh at our nature, we'll never be able to muster much pride in where we live.

Getting upset because some New York writer must have spent all of a half-day in a Columbia office park and found it not to his liking is just silly and bumpkin-like. Which is exactly how New York writers generally perceive the world beyond the far shore of the Hudson River. Meanwhile, Howard countians can be satisfied they aren't nearly as declasse as the Four Seasons or the iPhone thumbprint-recognition system or a waitress with drape-tassel hair. Or they might just offer what Veep's chief of staff Amy once said to annoying White House liaison Jonah, "I don't have time to ignore you."

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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