At moments like this, as Columbia begins marking its half-century of existence in Howard County, it’s comforting to think of the city’s genius creator, the late Jim Rouse, looking down from his heavenly perch and feeling pretty good about the dream he had so long ago.
When they opened the place in 1967, nobody knew if Columbia could work. I was fresh out of college back when the place was six months old, and working out of the old News-American’s Howard County bureau, and you could sense the disconnect between the new city and the old county surrounding it.
Howard County still held onto much of its rural past back then. Its police force wasn’t much bigger than Mayberry’s. On Ellicott City’s Main Street, there were homes that still had outdoor plumbing.
Columbia was seen as the new kid on the block – and maybe she was a spoiled kid, at that. A lot of the homes went for $30,000. They had fire places and sunken living rooms, pretty swell stuff – but who could afford $30,000 in 1967?
That wasn’t the only problem. Howard County was still pretty conservative back then, and cautious on matters of race.
Jim Rouse wasn’t. He wanted Columbia to feel like home to people of all skin colors, and he made that one of its selling points.
That was pretty brave talk back then, particularly when racial disturbances broke out all over the country – including Baltimore – following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968.
So the memory of those days is still vivid – of Rouse’s sales team falling all over themselves to make all prospective buyers feel welcome, and all reporters feel like they were getting a glimpse of a sunlit, racially harmonious American future.
But there’s an irony accompanying the Rouse story. Columbia drew thousands of people out of urban areas like Baltimore into the suburban frontier.
Yet, it was only a decade or so later that Rouse was creating Harborplace and the Village of Cross Keys in Baltimore, and Faneuil Hall in Boston, and the big national magazines were running cover stories on him as he declared, “Cities are fun again.”
He was Pied Piper to a lot of people searching for the American dream, suburban or urban.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
Top Photo: Statues by William F. Duffy of James W. Rouse (right) and his brother, Willard, overlooking Columbia’s Lake Kittamaquandi.
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