Columbia marches on


They were sort of a hippie bunch, those first Columbians who flocked to a chunk of Maryland farmland on the promise of racial harmony, religious tolerance and housing for all.

But for all their counterculture ideals, those suburban pioneers reached for a slice of Americana when they found something lacking in their planned paradise.

They rounded up fire engines and Boy Scouts, kids on bikes and tiny flags. Down the just-paved streets of this newfangled community marched a good, old-fashioned Fourth of July parade.

"Those of us who grew up in small-town America - I grew up in Red Lion, Pa. - we remembered Fourth of July parades where everyone decorated their bicycles," said Dotty Binckley, who was among Columbia's first 1,000 residents when she moved to the Longfellow neighborhood in 1968, three years before its first parade.

"I think we wanted to put something into Columbia that wasn't there," she said. "To our amazement, it has stayed. ... We've been doing this ticky-tacky, rickety-rackety parade for 30 years."

Now, as the Longfellow parade marks its 30th year, a much newer part of Columbia is getting into the act. In a way, it's a case of history repeating itself - in a place where everyone is a newcomer, the search for community spirit leads once again to a schmaltzy, star-spangled celebration.

Yet it's deja vu with a twist.

The old parade is a loosey-goosey affair, the new one a highly organized effort involving entry forms, a Marine color guard and corporate sponsors. Their differences stem in part from the challenge of starting a new tradition in what is now a very large community - 87,000 residents in Columbia, about 4,400 of them in River Hill, the village launching its first parade this year. The two parades also tell the story of a culture gap between old Columbia and new.

One of the first neighborhoods built in Columbia as part of the village of Harper's Choice, Longfellow reflects the vision of developer James W. Rouse, who mixed single-family homes, townhouses and low-income apartments to achieve racial and economic diversity. Like Longfellow three decades ago, River Hill is new and full of young families. The last part of Columbia to be developed, its homes went up no more than eight years ago and many are still being built.

But River Hill is no socioeconomic melting pot. More yuppie than hippie, it is an exclusive community where prices for single-family homes top $300,000 and apartments are nonexistent.

Bob Russell, 56, a self-described ex-hippie who wears his hair a little long in back, has been involved with the Longfellow parade for 26 years. The festivities wind down with softball games and a couple of kegs - any beer but Coors. Russell won't drink beer produced by the nonunion brewery.

"River Hill will serve Evian," he said with a good-natured roll of the eyes. "They'll serve champagne."

In truth, River Hill will do no such thing. The residents will have a simple cookies-and-soda "reception" at the end of their parade.

No one at the River Hill festivities is likely to rail against Coors or other big business. The cookies will come courtesy of Chicken Out. Giant supermarket employees will toss candy from a vintage company truck. A local dentist will enter a tooth fairy float. A band hired by a group of home builders will pump out patriotic tunes.

Barbara Wertman, a career Air Force officer and mother of two, is coordinating the River Hill parade. A native of Illinois, she moved her family to Columbia four years ago to take advantage of its good schools, not to take part in a grand social experiment.

But she nevertheless sees herself marching in Longfellow's footsteps. Wertman attended the long-running parade and consulted with Russell before launching her own effort.

"They're my role models," she said. "I watched the parade, the parents with the kids, the flags, and I thought, 'Nothing's changed since I was a kid.' ... It is our goal to create a parade that becomes part of our identity in a similar way to Longfellow's."

The result may be the same, but the means are as different as Uncle Sam and Jerry Garcia.

The River Hill effort is, like Wertman, the picture of upwardly mobile professionalism, organization and planning. The Longfellow parade is laid back like Russell, a self-employed desktop publisher who bounced around Europe for a while in a VW bus.

"We have no forms, no requirements, no regulations, no previous commitments, no future commitments. We don't care," he said. "If you show up between 9 and 9:55, you can be in the parade."

In fact, Russell has gotten the proper permits, arranged for a police escort and firetruck, and had T-shirts printed. Other volunteers have pitched in, too.

But there are a lot of unknowns. How many people are marching? How many flags will be handed out? Russell smiles broadly and says he has absolutely no idea.

Wertman isn't so willing to leave things to chance. On Aug. 12, 1997, she organized a party for River Hill's fifth birthday. There were games, face-painting - and a pitiful turnout. "It was 102 degrees ... the hottest day of the year. That was the biggest fizzle," she said.

Wertman dreaded another flop. She enlisted the help of Ruth Huffman, 31, a financial planner and River Hill resident. They spread the word with newspaper ads, fliers, invitations to about 50 businesses, schools and community groups. They created entry forms with a June 15 deadline.

"Describe your organization's parade entry, e.g. float, 15 Cub Scouts walking, six antique autos, 60-member marching band, 12 bicyclists, etc.," the form reads. "This will help us to align the parade elements."

Thirty years from now, Wertman said, River Hill's parade may be on autopilot, just like Longfellow's. For now, though, she's taking a type-A approach to tradition-building and Fourth of July fun.

"It might be in 'X' number of years we'll say, 'Show up,' and they'll be here," she said. "But I'm just not that comfortable. Before I advertise there's a parade, I want to make sure there will be one."

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