Segregation, horses and waxed hangers


AT JUST over 32, Columbia may be headed for a mid-life crisis.

Having started out in American life as the dream of a visionary developer, the nation's most famous new city seems to be re-examining its reason for being. A good thing, no doubt.

That would be the impression of an oldish newcomer, a Marylander of long standing whose mother used to live at Vantage House and who knows a number of Howard County's elected officials -- a Baltimorean recently assigned to write commentary on these pages for The Sun. Your eager and admiring correspondent, in other words.

If cities can collectively do such a thing, Columbia at least has the opportunity for a bit of therapeutic stocktaking. Three bits of evidence are offered here for the conclusion that the city built by Jim Rouse has reached something of a crossroads -- a difficult but not necessarily traumatic one.

Item: A few parents chose to seek a better education for their children by busing them out of their Wilde Lake neighborhood to a school more to their liking. That decision has been called "white flight," but at least one parent is African-American.

"I feel no responsibility," she wrote, "to fix the ills of Columbia which are reflected at Wilde Lake Middle at the expense of my child's well-being and education."

Something very similar was said by white parents in the 1960s and 1970s when they were asked to fix the ills of segregated school systems across the country by going along with court-ordered busing.

I was covering that story in Boston in those years when angry opponents forced newspaper trucks into the Boston harbor and one of them fired buckshot through the plate glass windows at the Globe's printing press. A book titled "Common Ground" was written about the struggle to sort through racial and economic cross currents.

The search continues.

"I felt guilty pulling out of there, but at the same time I think it was a really good thing because it sent a message that something has to change," said Patti Drazin, who sent her sixth-grade son to the new Fulton school, Lime Kiln Middle. Ms. Drazin and others have been chided for running instead of staying on to improve things. But others say the "message" had been sent to an unresponsive school system that failed to remedy a series of problems. The lesson: A good and efficient school system matters to a community well beyond the quality of education it provides.

Item: In further testament to the economic well-being and the rural roots of Howard County, the Columbia Association finds itself debating at great length whether horseback riding is a necessary amenity -- or a luxury paid for by the many to indulge the few.

Could the money be used for programs more democratic in scope? How are such priorities set by the Columbia Association? Is there a way to re-examine that decision-making mechanism?

Item: Nordstrom at the Mall in Columbia. The splendid new store is just one element of the expanded shopping venue. The floor tiles, new storefronts, new skylight-like arrangements above the second floor seem like a painless bit of suburban renewal. Annoying no doubt during construction, but the payoff seems to be agreeable -- though perhaps as unsettling to the Columbian's self-concept as the issue of schools and horseback riding.

Here's a new store that brings panache to the care and coddling of shoppers: Clerks spend a fair amount of time waxing the hangers to enhance hanger mobility; the art of folding a dress shirt must be perfected. Columbia commands Nordstrom because Columbia has discerning, able and energetic shoppers.

"Divine" shopping, said one writer, approvingly no doubt. But shopping is us (even for Baltimoreans who don't have department stores.) Harmless enough -- particularly if, somewhere, the county clings to the views of the Founding Father, Mr. Rouse. Surely it does.

The letters about self-busing and the hope for a new art movie theater bespeak an enlightened, literate, progressive community committed as ever to bike trails, diversity and working together. Not everyone, of course. But a new shot at common ground may be right there on the Internet, on The Sun letters page or in new forums for community discussion that would identify points of friction and address them.

Columbia would have a different name for it, but the city may be Maryland's version of Lake Wobegon (without the Norwegian angst): a place where all the women are smart, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.


C. Fraser Smith begins this week as the editorial writer for The Sun in Howard County. He has covered politics for The Sun since 1977. He is the author of two books, "Lenny, Lefty and the Chancellor: The Len Bias Tragedy and the Search for Reform in Big-Time College Basketball" (1993) and "William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography," forthcoming from the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pub Date: 9/26/99

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