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Residents share pride of Columbia, voice concerns about series


MAKE NO mistake about it. Some people are passionate about the town we live in - people like Donna Gorjon of Bryant Woods and her neighbors. For eight years, Donna and her husband, Mario, have held a party during the holidays for friends and neighbors.

But this year's gathering was different because Donna also invited a representative from The Sun. She wanted to demonstrate that her neighborhood in Wilde Lake village is still thriving. The ethnically diverse community is the oldest neighborhood in the oldest village of Columbia.

On Friday evening, Columbians old and new gathered at the Gorjons' home to share their passion for our town and vent their frustration with the recent Sun series, "Columbia at a Crossroads."

"I think the residents are mad at these articles that came out," said Patty Rouse, wife of Columbia founder James W. Rouse and a guest at the Gorjon party.

Donna Gorjon counts herself among those who are unhappy with the series. She said the articles unfairly characterized Columbia's older neighborhoods as home to inferior schools, rampant crime and rundown houses. She said she is afraid negative publicity will discourage young families from moving into neighborhoods such as Bryant Woods.

Although they could afford to purchase a home anywhere in Howard County, Donna Gorjon, a former speech pathologist, and Mario Gorjon, a dentist, chose to buy a house across the street from the dwelling where Donna lived when she moved to Columbia with her parents, Wilbur and Christine Crable.

"I loved the street that I lived on and the people that I had grown up with," Donna said.

So instead of buying a new house, they invested $100,000 in remodeling an older home on Waterfowl Terrace. In 1996, the Gorjons opened their doors to the public to demonstrate that updating and revitalizing an older home is a viable alternative to moving and starting over in a new community.

Jim Vereen carried a copy of The Sun's three-part series to the party in his back pocket. His family moved to Hobbit's Glen from New York five years ago. He said the news media have a responsibility to educate the public about efforts to revitalize older neighborhoods.

"This is an older community that is very much thriving," he said.

Yolanda Voss agreed. She and her husband, Bill, have lived in Bryant Woods since 1971. "I think Columbia is really a heaven for most people," she said. "We mingle with all races, with all nationalities. It's a true melting pot."

Bill Voss said Columbia hasn't lost any of its vibrancy from the early days.

"I think what Jim Rouse put together is a beautiful thing," he said. "In Baltimore, they've torn down some old buildings and moved people out - not only to Columbia, but to other areas too. Some of these people obviously didn't have good habits, and they brought them into the community.

"I think they are some of our troublemakers in school and cause some of the drug problems we have. I think it's something we're just going to have to work through. I don't think it has anything to do with Columbia's older neighborhoods. I don't think it's peculiar to Columbia at all."

Esko Riikonen, who has lived on Waterfowl Terrace since 1989, said he is not troubled by The Sun articles. "In Baltimore or Washington, you can read about these things every day," he said. "Here you find it once a year and people say, 'Hey, this is outrageous!' "

Lane McGee has lived in Bryant Woods since 1978.

"The Sistine Chapel is not perfect," McGee said. "If Michelangelo was alive, he could point out the things that are not right. Columbia is not perfect. If Jim Rouse were here, he could point out the things that aren't right. We have crime and other problems, the same as any other city. But here, because of the environment and the nature of the structure of the city, I believe you've got a better chance of dealing with it."

Patty Rouse said she feels her neighborhood is the same as it was 25 years ago. She lives in the home she shared with her husband on Waterfowl Terrace.

"After Jim died, my friends in Norfolk [Va.] and Virginia Beach said, 'Well, aren't you going to come back here?' " she said. "I wouldn't think of leaving Columbia as long as I'm able to take care of myself."

Rouse said many people still believe in her husband's vision for Columbia.

"It's still alive, but we've all got to work on keeping it alive," she said. "Way back when, Jim said that as transportation improved in the area, that crime might come into Columbia. That's what I think is happening in some places. The residents have got to be aware that there are problems in certain places and correct what they can."

Donna Gorjon began to cry as she addressed the gathering at the party.

"We continue to believe in the visions of James Rouse," she said. "I'm thankful we are here as a community - black, white, Chinese, from the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor. Columbia is not a Utopia, but it is a place where people from all backgrounds can live together. It is through us that we can continue to make this the best place to live in America."

For these folks, Columbia is a hometown to be proud of. They talk of dreams and visions as often as they mention school test scores and crime rates.

They wouldn't dream of living anywhere else.

Town meeting

The Wilde Lake Village Board and the Wilde Lake Revitalization Committee have scheduled a town meeting, "Wilde Lake Schools: 2001 and Beyond," at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Slayton House.

Residents can participate in a discussion of the state of Wilde Lake schools and directions for the future. Invited guests include principals, PTA presidents, school board members, chairs of the Leadership Committee on School Equity and Superintendent John R. O'Rourke.

Information: Carole Black or Bernice Kish, 410-730-3987.

Guide to giving

Sandy Fairhurst of the Columbia Association's Volunteer Corps is seeking donations for local nonprofits and public agencies.

The Volunteer Corps' Holiday Gift Guide 2000 lists needs of groups so the community can volunteer time, talents and goods.

For a copy of the guide: 410-715-3163.

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