Columbia capped its six-month long golden anniversary celebration on Sunday by dedicating 22 iconic posters that evoke the city’s visionary beginnings while also looking toward tomorrow.
The posters were dedicated as part of the festival’s closing ceremony, which also included an evening theatrical performance, dance concert and other events.
Marlys East, managing director of the Columbia Association’s 50th Birthday Celebration, likened the posters created by the artist Gail Holliday to “postage stamps” on a letter to the future, written by the city’s founders.
“The thing that’s amazing about the posters is that they live as well today as they did in the ’60s when Gail created them,” she said.
“A New City,” in which the planned community’s colorblind, bipartisan ideals, its energy and its optimism, are symbolized by four red and blue houses atop a big pink mound: a city on a hill, aiming toward the sky.
For almost a quarter-century, the silk-screened posters attached to five metal “trees” hung in front of Columbia’s old exhibition center. The posters were put in storage after the facility closed in 1989, but they lingered in residents’ imaginations. Many became collectors’ items, symbolizing for their owners what they hoped their city might some day become.
Columbia always has been a place that, more than most other communities, is aware of itself. It was founded by developer James W. Rouse to achieve specific goals — to be a place where people of different races and incomes could live comfortably side by side, a place sensitive to the environment, a place where residents could find everything they needed within its borders: jobs, education, entertainment and health care.
It’s a city that celebrates its founding not just on special occasions but every year, with a birthday cake and public party. It’s a city that made an outsized impact on former residents, whether their recollection takes the form of satire (the cartoonist Aaron McGruder’s “The Boondocks”) or a testimonial (the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon has written several essays about how growing up in Columbia shaped his world view.)
It’s a city that would celebrate its 50th anniversary with more than 100 events spread over six months: lectures, art exhibits, concerts, fireworks, panel discussions and more.
And it’s a city in which residents constantly ask themselves what progress has been made toward achieving Rouse’s goals and what has yet to be accomplished. It’s no accident that the motto for the 50th anniversary celebration was “Appreciate the past and imagine the future.”
“I don’t think that Jim would ever say that he’s satisfied with what we have achieved,” said Padraic “Pat” Kennedy, who lived next door to Rouse for decades and who was president of the Columbia Association for 26 of its 50 years.
“It was always a quest for him. I think the thing he would be proudest of is that Columbia is a racially integrated community, which went so much against the grain of the time when it was founded.”
About 49 percent of the city’s population was white in 2015, and 26 percent was black, Census figures show. English was not the native language for nearly 23 percent of the city’s approximately 103,000 residents.
“Jim would also say that progress still needs to be made,” Kennedy said. “He would say we need more affordable housing.”
Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman remembers building his tree house on the site of what now is Lake Elkhorn. He remembers his father and brother hunting on the site of what became Lake Kittamaqundi.
“I remember walking to the mall and seeing interracial couples that you never would have seen in other places,” he said. He said one of the highlights of the anniversary celebration was meeting several of these original pioneers and hearing their stories.
Kittleman acknowledges that Columbia isn’t immune to the forces that segregate other cities. For instance, its least affluent neighborhoods (Oakland Mills and Long Reach) are clustered just outside the city’s downtown. But he said plans are underway to bring these pockets into greater contact with their wealthier counterparts.
Renovation begins next month on a footbridge in Oakland Mills that will more closely link this neighborhood with the booming downtown, while the planned redevelopment of Long Reach’s Village Center includes a community pavilion, parks and picnic grounds and will, he said, “make Long Reach one of the places to be in Howard County.”
Also in the works: a plan to include 900 units of affordable housing downtown.
Holliday hopes that some of those 900 units will include housing for artists. If the goal is to amp up Columbia’s urban vibe, she said, there needs to be inexpensive places where the creative class can live and work and open the kind of hip cafes and out-of-the-way galleries found now in Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood that attract adventurous younger residents.
She’s touched that posters she created half a century ago are once again on display along Lake Kittamaqundi in Kennedy Garden as public artworks that remind Columbia’s current residents of the bold social experiment that became their hometown.
“I am humbled and honored and happy,” she said, “that my work continues to be a part of people’s lives.”