A sense of place in Howard County? ctd.

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In a recent post I questioned whether Howard County and Columbia had a true sense of place and, if not, whether there were anything that we as residents of Howard County could do about it. This post and the next contain my tentative answers. As I wrote before, there’s nothing profound here, it’s basically me thinking out loud in a blue sky-ish sort of way.

To answer the first question: I don’t think Howard County or even Columbia proper have a true sense of place. To some degree it’s the sort of question that if you have to ask it then you can be sure the answer is no. But, you might say, what about Jim Rouse’s vision? What about Columbia as a shining example of … a well-planned community, as Alan Klein recently put it?

The problem I have with that is that I don’t think it equates to a true sense of place. If I go to New York City, for example, I can appreciate its sense of place and even participate in it myself as a visitor or possible resident without having to have (figuratively or literally) sat at the feet of Fiorello La Guardia, Boss Tweed, or Peter Stuyvesant. But when it comes to Columbia it seems all too often that you just had to have been there, where there equals Wilde Lake, 1967, talking with Jim Rouse.

In my case I’ve thought about reading a biography of Jim Rouse or a history of Columbia’s history. But in the end I decided it was a waste of time. Howard County and Columbia are what they are, and if I can’t figure out the essence of them based on just my living here then that’s probably more their fault than mine.

So here’s my naive take on the essence of Columbia, and by extension the essence of Howard County. (Sorry, those of you who live in western Howard or elsewhere and don’t like Columbia; you should just get over it. As far as anyone else is concerned Howard County is Columbia, at least to a first approximation.)

  • A better suburb. Stripped of all the high-flown rhetoric, the sales pitch for Columbia was simply that it was a better suburb, relative to other suburbs at the time. (A key point, to which I’ll return.) It offered the things people traditionally have valued in suburbs—a single-family home with a yard, freedom to drive and park where you wish, good schools, a safe refuge from the social ills of the city—in a professionally-designed master-planned package.

  • A more socially diverse and inclusive environment. Again, this was relative to other suburbs at the time; no one would confuse Columbia with (say) the East Village, either then or now.

  • A prosperous economy driven by steadily growing government spending. As I’ve previously noted, it was this that enabled Columbia to maintain a rare combination of relatively high household incomes and relatively low income inequality. This combination was not unique to Howard County (many DC-area jurisdictions have it as well), but it certainly helped support and reinforce Columbia’s self-image.

I believe the above factors are what truly distinguished Columbia, and that many of what people think of as unique and essential features of Columbia (the village centers, interfaith centers, and so on) are simply particular manifestations of how those factors played out in history.

That means that if we want to preserve what was seen as special about Columbia, and perhaps have a chance at building a true sense of place in Howard County, we need to look to the essentials and not the epiphenomena, and determine how those essentials might evolve and be sustained in the 21st century. My (off-the-cuff) thoughts on this topic in my next blog post.