One might say that the heart of modern-day Howard County is the city of Columbia. Before the late 1960’s, it wasn’t. Now it’s the second largest city in Maryland after Baltimore, but then it was wooded country and farmland dotted with a few small crossroad communities. Then came Jim Rouse and his ideas for a planned city based not just on economic factors but on human values.
An unincorporated city and home to my characters Detective Sergeants Corina Montufar and Eric Dumas, Columbia consists of ten “villages” intended to provide a small-town atmosphere. Each village in turn consists of several neighborhoods built around a shopping center (the “village center”). Recreational facilities, a community center, and hiking and biking trails are also found in each. Many street and place names are taken from art and literature, so when you run across the moniker “Hobbit’s Glen,” yes, that is indeed a tip of the hat to J. R. R. Tolkien.
The central village is the Town Center area, which includes the Columbia Mall and significant business presence. Next door to the mall, the Merriweather Post Pavilion amphitheater plays host to a wide variety of concerts by big-name performers. Three manmade lakes and a variety of parks offer recreational opportunities. The Columbia Association, a citywide homeowners’ association, manages common-use facilities. It also dictates certain details of construction and the overall look and feel of the place. As a former colleagues who lived there once told me, “Yeah, it’s the taste police.”
A curious aspect of Columbia is how hidden many commercial venues are. The idea was to avoid the unsightly clutter of businesses that so often overtakes main thoroughfares in other cities. You can sometimes pass right by a store or restaurant without knowing it’s there. The Chinese restaurant frequented by Montufar and Dumas in my Howard County mysteries is loosely based on a real Chinese restaurant I once visited with some coworkers. The real place was larger and more elegant than the fictional one, which is basically a little storefront eatery, but they were both tucked away out of view.
Columbia is not a cheap place to live. The closer you get to Washington, D.C., the higher the prices rise. That’s why, when we moved to the area in 1995, we didn’t buy a house there. We had five school-age children at the time and needed a house big enough to corral them all. Nevertheless, from the get-go the idea behind Columbia was to provide a community where people of all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic stripes could live and work and play in close proximity. To some degree, it did achieve that. You’ll find areas of larger and smaller homes, townhouses, and apartments in close proximity to each other, and people of all backgrounds rubbing elbows in the same shopping areas.
I don’t think of Columbia as a city, though. It has the suburban feel of the areas in which I grew up and have lived all my life. Rouse may have wanted to reinvent the city, but in many ways I think he more reinvented the suburbs, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in more questionable ways. I suspect most of the people who live there like it. I’ve only encountered one person who didn’t. Shortly before I moved there someone told me in an online conversation that he hated the place. Its development, he said, destroyed some of the best hunting lands in central Maryland.
But given its proximity to both Baltimore and Washington, development was probably the area’s fate anyway.