Commentary: Empty streets at midnight: Is this the promised downtown Columbia?

When my kids were toddlers and they walked around in what we called their "bare nudies," we used to say they were "exposed to the elements."

When they were able to talk, they transposed that expression into "exposed to the elephants," and Hubby and I fell lock-step in line, still saying that to this day.

The kids, however, grew up, becoming fully clothed mammals, and progressed into adulthood, which I am also waiting for Columbia to do. See, the plan was that downtown was to be developed last, which always seemed a little strange to me.

Padraic "Pat" Kennedy and I were having this discussion recently about how downtown is the same as it ever was, to quote songster David Byrne, whose folks, by the way, live in Columbia.

Pat, the Columbia Association's first president, who, by the way, is as twinkly as he ever was, smacked his hand on the table at a posh dance we were attending, and asked, "When are we gonna get a downtown? Columbia was always supposed to be a city, and I'm still waiting for the downtown!"

Well, golly, aren't we all?

Now, is this a fine conversation when you're having fun? Emphatically yes, but mainly because we smiled through it all.

Whole Foods is coming. That's a great step forward. Apartments, condos. A transformation of a Symphony into a Central Park. Bistros and outdoor shopping.

Back in the day, media constantly and consistently referred to Columbia as a utopia. James Rouse, blessed founder and relatively bad dresser who knew that plaids, stripes and emerald green jackets a good ensemble did not make, constantly and consistently corrected them. It didn't matter.

It was called that because Columbia welcomed all people into one growing garden while the rest of Maryland was divided into separate garden plots.

But I don't know who stayed and who left what media also called an "experimental" city after some experienced what is now called "diversity."

I used to go door to door in Columbia's first apartment building, collecting for a charity. One woman, who was white, told me that she knew Columbia was going to be integrated, but she didn't know that everyone would live in the same building. She left.

Another woman, who was black, told me she hated Columbia because there was no area just for Afro-Americans, which was the terminology of the time. She raised her voice to me, wondering what the people who built this place were thinking.

I said to her, y'know, you're not married, you don't have a boyfriend, you have no kids and you're renting, "so, I strongly urge you to leave and go back to Seattle, where you believe you will be happy and healthier. Just go." And she did.

So today I am thinking about the marvelous sold-out party one recent Saturday evening put on by the nationally known Howard County Center for African American Culture. I am thinking about Columbia's growth and that of Howard County and the transference of lives and loves between the two. My daughter, to name one, married a county man and nested in the west.

I'm thinking about how a magazine hired me some years after Columbia's germination to write about how county folks despised the newcomers so different from themselves. And how I failed to do so. The curmudgeons were few and far between. And besides, if the farmers hadn't sold their land, the town could never have been built anyway.

But because it was, there's a life that isn't same as it ever was. Jazzercise is on tap. So is the Teelin School of Irish Dance. And Misako Ballet Studio, soccer games and the cream, Ellicott City, is just a short drive away.

Now, if I could just see a car or two in Columbia's downtown after midnight.

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