Jim Rouse’s Columbia celebrates 50 years of planned community

Though Columbia won't officially celebrate its 50th birthday until June 21, the party's about to get started.

Event planners realized early on that a week or even a month wouldn't be enough time for all interested organizations and institutions to contribute to the milestone bash in a meaningful way.


So, they opted for a 27-week schedule crammed with nearly 100 events that will kick off with an opening ceremony and all-day festivities March 19 at the Mall in Columbia and culminate in a week-long finale in September.

While the arts account for much of the schedule – with events planned by such mainstays as the Columbia Orchestra, Columbia Concert Band, the Young Columbians and the Columbia Festival of the Arts – other unique performances, displays and presentations also abound.


Some are expected to become new traditions, such as the inaugural book festival set for June 11 at the soon-to-be-opened Chrysalis amphitheater at Merriweather Park in Symphony Woods and an outdoor painting event on Sept. 9 at Lake Kittamaqundi.

Then there's the matter of how to best pay tribute to Columbia founder James Rouse, the socially conscious developer whose vision for improving life in America's cities will be forever intertwined with Columbia's very existence.

The Columbia Association took its role in creating a multi-faceted birthday tribute to the master-planned city to heart by forming a nonprofit to tackle the project in 2013.

Rouse — who also built shopping malls and festival marketplaces in urban centers like Boston and Baltimore and later focused on building affordable housing for low-income residents — watched his pet project blossom for decades from his home in Wilde Lake, where he died on April 9, 1996 at age 81.


For many Columbians and Howard County residents, the passage of time has not diminished Rouse's influence on shaping the city's guiding principles.

"Jim wasn't polished; he was a rumpled and eclectic guy," said Marlys East, a former Rouse Co. marketing vice-president who was tapped by CA to oversee the celebration's many moving parts.

"He was a silent motivator who established a culture of creativity in which anything was possible," said East, who worked with Rouse for 25 years.

Belief in human potential is a Rouse philosophy that many 50th birthday events will strive to underscore.

"The joy of celebrating is the joy of honoring him and the city he created," she said.

East, who is serving as managing director of Columbia's 50th birthday, is being assisted by a 22-member board of directors.

When the eight people on the programming committee first met, they realized they had to reach a consensus on what a fitting tribute to Columbia should look like and that would require introspection.

One question that arose was, "Why are we a community that celebrates its birthday every year?" said Jean Moon, a longtime Columbian who runs a public relations firm and was formerly a community newspaper executive.

"What makes Columbia remarkable is that it has been an intentional community with founding values from the beginning," she said. "People who live here have a sense of identity, a sense of living in a special place."

Moon said it's also important to maintain perspective on Rouse's accomplishments within the context of the continuing evolution of Columbia.

"Jim was a wholly admirable person," she said. "And he was a human being whose particular talents and gifts came together with the opportunities that were available."

Moon said the committee agreed that "we needed to make sure that everyone understands the past, but we don't want [the celebration] to get stuck there."

That's how the theme "Appreciate the Past, Imagine the Future" came to be, she said.

"This schedule of events is in many ways a showcase for the many aspects of community life in [present-day] Columbia," Moon said. "We reached out to everybody and encouraged them to ratchet up their normal programming and basically do their best at what they do."

Events with no apparent connection to a birthday theme will shine a light on how people and the institutions they create define a successful city such as Columbia, which in 2016 was ranked by Money magazine as the best place to live in America.

Other events will intently focus on Rouse's contributions.

"Columbia Through the Ages" is a 90-minute multi-disciplinary extravaganza that revolves around Rouse quotations and is set for April 23 at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Gino Molfino, coordinator of fine arts for the Howard County Public School System, came up with the idea of having each of the county's 12 high schools base a five-minute performance of their choosing on a quote that correlates to a point in time in Columbia's history.

"We wanted to highlight the Utopian ideals and philosophy that catapulted his thinking," Molfino said.

The quotes will follow a four-part chronology that starts with Rouse's vision, moves through the city's development and then on to the Columbia of today and the vision for the future, he said.

The schools will perform in the order they opened their doors, starting with Howard High School and ending with Marriotts Ridge High School.

"With 750 to 800 performers involved, this will be a feat for the ages," Molfino said.

Founder's Day on May 9 will delve into Rouse's vision for "a garden for growing people" through video recordings of his speeches, memories shared live by early settlers and talks by two speakers with Columbia expertise.

Barbara Kellner, who heads the Columbia Archives and is chairwoman of the 50th birthday programming committee, is organizing this appreciation of the past.

Ann Forsyth, a professor of urban planning at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, will give a talk called "Reforming Suburbia."

Joshua Olsen, whose book "Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse" was published in 2004, will discuss why Columbia's founder is still relevant today.

"My part of this event will show that our past means nothing if it doesn't influence the future," Kellner said. "Columbians want to continue to be forward-thinking while adhering to the original overarching concept of creating a city that meets the needs of people."

Despite the schedule's heavy emphasis on the arts, entertainment and enlightenment, one basic tradition will prevail as it has in years past on the Friday closest to Columbia's birthday, which this year will be June 16 during the Lakefront Festival.

Rouse always loved the idea of residents coming together to celebrate Columbia's birthday with cake, "but this year we will do something dramatic," East said.

Stay tuned.

For a detailed schedule of events and more, go to columbiamd50.com.

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