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Time tempers Columbia's lofty ideals Attempt at racial harmony meets with mixed results


The white-supremacist newspapers that were scattered on Columbia lawns and doorsteps this winter seemed to have breached one of the city's most fundamental tenets: People of all races, ethnic backgrounds and nationalities could exist here in harmony.

The idealism that founded Columbia -- which celebrates its 25th birthday this week -- still exists, but it has been tempered with realism. While Columbia founder James W. Rouse envisioned a utopian city, some say he got a better city than most. Others are disappointed.

"I would like to say that racial harmony has progressed, but in the 23 years I've been here, I see separation rather than harmony," said Viera Wilson, president of the local chapter of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women.

"It's a dream that has come true partially," said Zeba Bahir of the Howard County Ba'hai, which meets at Stevens Forest Neighborhood Center. "I'm sure there's racism to a point. We are much more ahead of other places."

The spirit of the pioneering residents -- those who came here specifically for the town's lofty goals of racial and religious harmony -- has fallen by the wayside, leaving the town more vulnerable to racial and religious tensions, some Columbians say.

Growing pains

People of many races live in Columbia in everything from subsidized apartments to modest town houses to swanky penthouses. While blacks comprise about 18 percent, Asians make up 4 percent and Hispanics 2 percent of Columbia's growing 76,000 population.

But longtime residents complain that Columbia has grown too large to teach newcomers about its ideals.

"As the place got bigger and individuals started to pour in, you really didn't see many people interrelating in various activities," said Wilson, a 23-year resident.

"When we first moved to Columbia, there were the welcome wagons and the groups of people who made sure the new residents were made to feel at home," said Natalie Woodson, a retired elementary school principal and a 21-year resident of Swansfield.

"There were all kinds of community activities designed to bring about cohesiveness in the community," said Woodson, who is black. "Everybody was excited and working hard to make things happen. I don't know if these things are still going on. I have a feeling the newer residents of Columbia didn't come with the same goals in mind."

Others say Columbia has not met their expectations. They say there are no black judges, and few minorities in leadership positions. Schools still have a long way to go in teaching about multicultural topics and diversity, and black businesses fail because white shoppers don't patronize them.

"Columbia is no different," said Al Gonsouland, former research director for the Rouse Co. and a resident for nearly 20 years. "We have all the same problems as other cities. We have problems in crime and race relations."

People who move to Columbia now do so for either its educational system or its location, and much less for its ideals.

"The older residents have said, 'Things have changed so much, we're moving out,' " said Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, multicultural chairwoman of the Columbia Forum.

But Columbia was never without racial tensions, even at its beginning. The Wall Street Journal in 1971 described the new town, "with its curving main streets past wooded groves and greensward," as an aesthetic success, but reported it still faced the problems of Old America. The paper reported increased crime rates and drug abuse, and rising racial tensions.

Back in 1969, Clarke Gordon Sr., who moved to Columbia from Baltimore primarily for its new and affordable housing, said he found a police force that was composed mostly of whites and schools that disfavored minority students. A year later, he created the Committee for Concerned Black Citizens to deal with racial tensions and job opportunities.

Since then, things have gotten better, but not much, he said.

"Columbia is not totally integrated. People have brought the same old bad habits with them," Gordon said. "I think Columbia continues to have opportunities for racial harmony, but even among its religious sector, racism is intense as any other town."

Unshared religion

The interfaith center idea -- where different faiths use the same facilities to foster religious harmony -- attracts supporters and critics. While it has eased fund-raising concerns and has people of different faiths worshiping in the same buildings, it has not created an atmosphere where they share religious experiences, some church leaders say.

Gordon, who is chairman of the deacon's board at the predominantly black St. John's Baptist Church at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, said there is tension and little collaboration among church leaders.

"Ministers are not cooperative with one another. They don't share their ministry. They just come to the building, have their religious service, then they leave."

Church members are no different.

"While we see people in church on Sunday, there's very little communication," Gordon said. "We just walk past one another."

Churches that don't use interfaith centers -- by choice or for lack of space -- rent schools on weekends for services. Interfaith centers in Kings Contrivance, Hickory Ridge and possibly River Hill are being planned to accommodate the growing population, said George W. Martin, chairman of the Columbia Religious Facilities Corp., which oversees planning and financing of worship space.

"The interfaith building concept doesn't do much, in my opinion, to promote understanding among congregations and denominations," said the Rev. Steven Beall of the Unitarian Universalist Society. "It inhibits congregations to outwardly exhibit their identities."

At the Owen Brown Interfaith Center, the 400-member congregation of Beall's growing Unitarian church faces a crossroads: whether to start another congregation in a different part of Columbia, or build elsewhere.

Being at the Owen Brown location is "less a choice than a necessity," he said. "It's been an excellent incubator, but it's an inadequate building to us. We outgrew the building."

Beth Shalom, a Jewish congregation of 163 families, plans to break ground this summer at Guilford and Freetown roads to build its own synagogue. The congregation -- also housed at Owen Brown -- needed its own worship space, somewhere that's accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen.

"We have children aged 5 or 6 who haven't seen a synagogue," he said. Cohen said his congregation wanted to worship in a sacred place, not a "social hall with fold-up chairs" as is the case at Owen Brown.

Rabbi Martin Siegel, whose Columbia Jewish Congregation holds services at the Oakland Mills Meeting House, calls worshiping in shared space a minor inconvenience.

"I think it provides a religious challenge," he said. "It frees religious institutions from building fixation. The concern becomes the people, not the building."

What's in store?

Residents say they are realizing it takes more than a dream to make Columbia a harmonious place, much less a model city. It's going to take dialogue, action and change.

"As a nation, we're coming out of an era of selfishness -- an era where people were concerned with their own needs," said C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, a County Council member and Columbia resident since 1974. "We really need to get back to promoting ideas of community and public values."

"The challenge will be for Columbia to return to the purpose and idealism of the past," said Rabbi Mark Panoff of Temple Isaiah. "The challenge will be to educate and sensitize the new generation of Columbians as to its history and the reason this place came to be so we don't become another suburban middle-class community. I'd hate to see that happen."

Change Masters, which began as a project of the Columbia Forum, will hold a series of discussions in July and August to chart Columbia's role in the next 25 years as a culturally diverse community, according to co-chair Pearl Atkinson-Stewart.

"We are too quick to assume that we are of like mind," she said. "We want to get a real feel as to what people are thinking. We may find out that people are saying, 'Well, we're not interested in socializing with other groups.' "

The organization aims to gauge residents' feelings on diversity, equity and racial and religious harmony -- and how to improve them. In focus groups, residents will be asked such questions as "Is your neighborhood an integrated one?" and "Have any racial-, ethnic- or gender-related incidents happened to you in Columbia?"

"For the future, we will have to consciously pursue the concept of Columbia," Atkinson-Stewart said. "The changeover here has been more rapid. We've become a transit community. We have to keep reminding newcomers of what it stands for."

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