Lost in Columbia


Much has been made of the idealism upon which Columbia was founded. A promise of social and economic diversity undergirded the planned city when it was born a quarter-century ago. Now, however, that core philosophy seems under siege in Columbia, as it is on the national political scene.

For those looking from the outside in, Columbia is often held up as a suburban utopia, unique in its willingness to accept all walks of life. But for those who know Columbia best -- the people who live within its borders -- a more realistic view is emerging.

As Columbia has aged, its idealism has eroded. As reported recently, residents increasingly complain of deteriorating neighborhoods, crime and poorly maintained village centers. The complaints are sporadic and hardly tell the whole story. But there is an element of truth to the observations, most alarming of which is the trend among residents to self-segregate based on economics.

This segregation has been generated, in part, by forces larger than Columbia. The character of Columbia's neighborhoods closely reflects the federal government's dwindling role in providing low-income housing. While older communities have low-income complexes interspersed with market-rate housing, later developments emphasized scattered-site -- and, therefore, less visible -- housing for the poor. Moreover, in areas where new housing is under construction, prices tend to run from $300,000 to $1 million -- wide-ranging, perhaps, but not diverse. The city's newest and final village, River Hill, has no low-income housing planned.

Couple the normal aging with this phenomenon, as well as the imbalance between conditions in Columbia's older and newer communities, and it feeds tensions between different groups of residents. The Columbia Housing Corp.'s plan to spend $1.5 million this year to renovate several townhouse communities for the poor is a welcome sign. Also, the Rouse Co.'s stated commitment to maintaining all of its village centers needs to be followed with action. These centers -- focal points of their communities -- must be kept safe and attractive.

But beyond bricks and mortar, all of Columbia's residents should be involved in a concerted effort to rekindle the spirit upon which it was founded. What Columbia could use more than anything is a return to its root idealism.

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