Where has all the idealism gone? Is Columbia still 'the next America' or just Anytown, U.S.A.?


JUST WHAT is happening to Columbia, the planned city that James Rouse created a quarter-century ago to foster a more inclusive suburbia?

Recent reports have a citizens group calling on the Columbia Association to take steps to stimulate better relations between affluent and poor residents of the city. Meanwhile, a resident of one village expressed concern at a recent public meeting about "white flight" from some neighborhoods. As if to add to the confusion, a new book just hit the bookstores that celebrates Columbia's legacy of racial and economic harmony.

Has "The Next America," as the book's subtitle described Columbia, become just like much of the rest of America, divided and running scared? Or does the fundamental principle upon which Columbia was founded -- tolerance toward others -- persist today?

To be sure, we are in a period of strained race relations. In the wake of the O.J. Simpson verdict, the Million Man March and the "revolution" in Washington, misunderstanding and anger are running high, and there's no reason to believe that Columbia should be exempt from the mood gripping the nation. But to suggest that Columbia as a whole has succumbed to racial and economic polarization is a gross overstatement. More so than many places, Columbia retains a core of idealism that could help it weather this cloudcover of devisiveness.

The term "white flight" carries so much historical and inflamatory baggage, we wish it had never been uttered. There is no evidence that Columbia is experiencing this phenomena. While census data paints an inadequate picture of the racial breakdown in Columbia, what it does show in no way suggests that whites are engaged in an exodus.

Between 1980 and 1990, the white population in the county decreased a miniscule 2.3 percent, down to 83.2 percent.

Interestingly, the black population, which is generally associated with white flight, increased only .1 percent. Most of the growth countywide has been due to an influx of Asian and Hispanic residents.

Perhaps more residents need to take a look at the new book by David and Susan Hobby, "Columbia, Maryland: A Celebration." It might remind them of what is still good about the 28-year-old planned city.

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