Columbia's Ideals in Question Decades After Town's Birth

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By:  Shauna Miller  
News21 UMD Staff
Posted: Aug. 5, 2009

Wilde Lake, 1966 / Rouse Co. photo used by permission of the Columbia Archives
Wilde Lake and the larger community of Columbia were settled in the 1960s by people committed to James Rouse's ideals of diversity. (Rouse Co. photo used by permission of the Columbia Archives)

When Rouse Co. bulldozers carved out Wilde Lake in Columbia, Md., James W. Rouse had an idealistic plan in mind for his community.

“Simply stated, we are ‘color-blind,’ ” the late city planner wrote in a 1967 memo to Columbia developers. “This means that every person or family coming to Columbia to seek a lot, an apartment, a house; to start a business; to play golf, tennis, ride horseback, sail, swim, or use any other facility open to the public will be treated alike regardless of whether the color of his skin is white, black, brown or yellow.”

It was a bold vision, given the nation’s stormy racial climate. When Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis the following spring, touching off riots in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., few would have guessed that the community still taking shape nearby in the farmland of Howard County would become a proving ground for ideas about racial harmony in America.

Four decades later, Rouse’s dream for a racially diverse city appears to have succeeded on many fronts. Columbia was voted one of CNNMoney.com’s Best Places to live in 2006 and 2008 and ranked No. 7 this year in Forbes Magazine’s “America's Top 25 Towns to Live Well.” It’s more racially diverse than America as a whole: 22.4 percent of the town is black, compared to 12.4 percent of the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Its mixed-race numbers are also high, and growing: While 2.1 percent of people nationwide identify as mixed-race, that number is nearly double in Columbia.

And the town that Rouse built is prosperous. The median family income is $104,631, compared to a national of $60,374, according to Census. Families living in poverty account for less than half that of the national number: 3.7 percent compared to 9.8 percent.

But as Columbia’s identity continues to evolve, questions about what its future will look like are emerging. The town was settled by blacks and whites committed to diversity, and their children lived out these ‘60s ideals. As newcomers write the next chapter of the town’s story, some wonder if their aspirations mesh with the founder's.

“People here from the beginning had a different experience than people who came later,” says longtime resident Neil Fagan, whose family settled in Wilde Lake in 1968 on one of Columbia’s first lots. “People who came later don’t necessarily know the ideals that we moved here for, the social experiment. They almost don’t want to know. It clashes with their way of thinking.”

Fagan chalks up some of these philosophical divisions to Columbia’s increasing affluence. Home prices have steadily climbed in Howard County since 1970 and continue to hover around 50 percent higher than homes nationally, according to Census. And while Rouse’s original plan for diversity extended to economics and housing, some newer sections of the town feature less affordable homes and no subsidized housing at all.

Others say that despite demographic shifts -- including the growth of the immigrant community -- Rouse's vision still beckons some newcomers. Nearly 18 percent of Columbia’s residents are foreign-born, compared to 12 percent nationwide. This group grew 5 percent in Columbia between 2000 and 2007, according to Census, and makes up nearly 30 percent of the town’s mixed-race population.

C. Vernon Gray / News21 photo by Shauna Miller
C. Vernon Gray moved to Columbia in 1973. He says founder Rouse held everyone from builders to barbers to his policies of nondiscrimination. (News21 photo by Shauna Miller)

Navigating the Early Years

Columbia’s  early years were tense ones as residents navigated uncharted social territory.

“When Columbia first started, it was at a very scary time,” recalls Fagan, who says Columbia’s intentional diversity was a driving factor in his parents’ decision to move there from Baltimore.

“There was a huge amount of hostility in those times,” says Fagan, who is white. When Columbia’s integrated lacrosse team played against Baltimore’s City College, Fagan recalls the players donning their helmets and gear while inside their bus in case racial arguments got physical.

“There was wholesale housing segregation in this country then,” says C. Vernon Gray, Howard County Human Rights administrator and a former County Council member, who moved to Columbia in 1973. “Even in Howard County, blacks were confined into certain neighborhoods. And then here comes Columbia. People were suspicious. Who’s this white guy coming in here talking about these kinds of issues?”

Gray says Rouse built trust with early residents through ongoing stakeholder meetings and transparency about his intent. Columbia was a company town, and Rouse held everyone from builders to barbers to his policies of nondiscrimination.

“He’d go in there and say, ‘We are not having this,’ ” Gray says. “Those things he personally did reassured people that he really meant to have interracial and economic integration.”

Instead of lumping lower-priced homes downtown, Rouse’s plan placed single-family homes, townhouses and apartments in concentric circles within each village, feeding into shared “open schools” and multi-denominational “interfaith centers.” Columbia’s blended community took root.

“We all grew up together,” says Fagan. “This was the idea Rouse had – that we would share the same experiences and resources. And we all turned out very well, comfortable. … But it worked because we lived here and grew up here … and we stayed for 40 years.”

A generation later, some newcomers have never heard of Jim Rouse. But they are still drawn here by his vision.

Michaela Liongson, 39, emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines with her husband eight years ago, and moved to Columbia in 2006.

“Before we moved here, we searched many cities,” says Liongson, who lives in the village of Oakland Mills. “We saw on the Columbia Web site that it has different people of all different colors.”

Liongson says Columbia offers a community unlike anything she knew back home.

“It’s open-minded here, but not in our country,” says Liongson. “Here, same or different colors, they treat us the same.”

Living Out the Dream

Columbia’s demographics -- including its significant population of mixed-race residents -- are far from an anomaly. According to Census, many U.S. cities reflect even larger percentages of multiracial residents, including Honolulu, Hawaii (14 percent); Tulsa, Okla. (5.5 percent); and Tacoma, Wash. (5.7 percent).

But compared with other metro areas on the East Coast and with other Maryland suburbs, Columbia’s mixed-race population is strikingly high.

The suburbs themselves seem to have a special draw. A 2001 Brookings Institution study found mixed-race individuals settle in suburban areas at a higher rate than single-race minorities, but at a lower rate than whites. According to study co-author William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, this indicates progress.

“There’s still a dividing line between the spatial assimilation of mixed-race couples and individuals and whites,” he says. “Things are heading in the right direction, but color still matters. But there’s a breaking of the barrier when you do have mixed-race groups.”

A Fannie Mae Foundation study Frey led a year later produced another interesting finding: Multiracial people live in more diverse neighborhoods overall than those of a single race.

News21 photo by Shauna Miller
Malynda and Richard Madzel moved to Columbia in 1984. They had heard of the town's concept and thought it would be a great place to raise kids. (News21 photo by Shauna Miller)

Such findings are lived experience for Malynda Madzel, a former Howard County Chamber of Commerce chair who moved to Columbia in 1984 with her husband, Richard. Madzel is African-American; her husband is white. They have two children, Melissa Madzel, 29, and Daniel Madzel, 34.

When the couple married in 1972, the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing interracial marriages was only five years old.

“We didn’t think of that as a political thing, it was just our life,” says Madzel, who heard about Columbia through friends in mixed marriages who had settled there.

“I had an idea of the town’s concept, and we thought it would be a great place to raise our children, who are biracial,” she says. “We wanted them to be around people like them.” Madzel herself grew up in a segregated town in Indiana.

In those days, she says, Columbia was “in its teenage years -- a little rambunctious, a little out there.” But the streets were clean and the houses affordable. “And my son’s birthday parties looked like the U.N.,” she remembers.

“On paper, Rouse’s dream really works,” says Madzel. “You can live in any neighborhood, and your neighbors are of all stripes,” she says.

“But like everywhere else,” she laughs, “it’s full of … people. We go to parties where I am the only person of color, and to parties where my husband is the only person not of color.”

For the biracial children of some of Columbia’s first generation, growing up in an intentionally multicultural community has imparted a unique perspective on identity.

“I didn’t really think about what it was like growing up mixed race,” says 26-year-old Erika Woodward, who grew up in the villages of Owen Brown and King’s Contrivance. “I just thought about growing up. Families like ours were definitely more common in Columbia. It added to a sense of being normal, of not being an outsider.”

For Woodward’s parents, Fred and Pam Woodward, their move to Columbia from Boston in 1982 was for just that reason. Fred, who is African-American, and Pam, who is white, met and married in Pennsylvania.

“We definitely bought into Rouse’s vision,” says Pam, an elementary-school teacher. “I wanted Erika to be able to see not just white professionals. I wanted to increase her chances of having black doctors and instructors in school.”

For her part, Erika Woodward says she appreciated what growing up in such an environment really meant when she left home to attend the University of Maryland.

“I was in a sociology class and a girl was complaining about ‘political correctness’ -- about ads that had an Asian girl, and a black girl, and a Latino girl, how it was ridiculous. And I thought, ‘That’s not ‘political correctness.’ That’s my life!’ ”

All Not Heard Equally

News21 photo by Shauna Miller
Pam Woodward, an elementary-school teacher, says she moved to Columbia because she wanted daughter Erika to have role models of all races. (News21 photo by Shauna Miller)
Erika Woodward says Barack Obama's election has made her feel more accepted. (Interview by Shauna Miller / video by Andrew Smith)

For young mixed-race voters like Woodward, Barack Obama’s election to the presidency last fall means a broader visibility for multiracial people like herself.

“I feel like my face is also the face of America,” Woodward says.

And Obama's candidacy certainly helped turn out the voters. Turnout in Columbia last November was about 75 percent, according to Howard County Board of Elections data, well above the national average of 62 percent. The Democratic nominee captured 55 percent of the vote, about 2 percent more than the national average.

But turnout for village elections, where candidates are chosen to represent residents in the development of public spaces, retail and housing, is typically low. And not all voices are heard equally. Turnout is below 20 percent for most of the 10 villages, according to village managers.

Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, who represents Owen Brown on the Columbia Association’s Board of Directors, says only 250 residents in her village of 5,000 voted in April’s village-representative elections. She says those engaged on a community level are mostly white and “grey-haired people such as myself.”

“We have a diverse community here, with an opportunity to shape the future of Columbia,” says Atkinson-Stewart, who is African American. “By not participating, they aren’t bringing their cultures to the table,” she says.

Development seems to reflect this skewed participation. Some of the newest villages – like River Hill and Town Center – do not feature any subsidized housing. Meanwhile, older villages like Harper’s Choice and Long Reach carry the heaviest concentration of Section 8 units.

Sandy Cederbaum, manager of the Oakland Mills Community Association, says getting lower-income and immigrant residents in her village plugged into local politics has been a struggle. “We haven’t been able to engage them on a local level,” says Cederbaum, who is Caucasian.

“Some residents have a language barrier, limited incomes. And as much as we are a diverse community, I don’t feel like we reach out to the degree that we could,” she says.

Paula Blackwell, a community resources manager for the Foreign Born Information and Referral Network, points out another barrier to engagement for immigrants: Fear.

“In some other countries, involvement is dangerous,” she says. “Some people prefer to fly under the radar."

Passing on the Dream

For some of the old guard like Madzel, Columbia politics are personal, tied to the community she’s helped shape over the decades. Madzel is a past chair of the Columbia Foundation, which allots private funding to community organizations and nonprofits in Columbia -- shelters, arts and education organizations, as well as direct services like FIRN.

She says this type of support represents an enduring commitment to Rouse’s vision of an inclusive community, building on its successes.

“Lots of people in Columbia are coming of age financially and want to contribute back,” she says. “This allows that on a micro-community level.”

Madzel’s grown daughter, Melissa, shares her mother’s sense of indebtedness to Columbia. Now transplanted to Brooklyn, N.Y., the 29-year-old UNICEF fundraiser says she sometimes wonders if Rouse would be disappointed she moved away – taking years of community-sponsored leadership training with her.

“What he did was so daring and so bold,” she says. “And I appreciate it personally, because of what it did for me, for my family and other families like mine. He was a businessman, and he could have just sat back and counted his money, you know?”

Some newly minted Columbians like Liongson may have to struggle to afford the community. Liongson says she and her husband are sacrificing now to make sure their children can enjoy a better future. The family’s new home is smaller and more expensive than the one they shared in Bowie, where they lived right after moving to the United States from the Philippines. And Liongson must work two jobs: mornings in foodservice at Oakland Mills High School and nights at Wal-Mart while her husband watches their three children.

But she says the hardships are worth enduring to gain the opportunities Columbia can offer their kids – the same types of opportunities that worked for the town’s first generation.

“We are here for my children, so they can learn in school and have a good future,” Liongson says. “Sometimes I [tell] them we have to transfer from here because it’s too expensive. I’m just joking, trying to know what they’re feeling about this place, but they don’t like that.

“They don’t want to move. They want to stay.”

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