Saturday, January 26, 2013

What is Columbia All About?

The writers in my niche of the HoCoBlogs-o-sphere share many things in common, including deep connections to Columbia. Some of us live there, some grew up there, some work there, and all care greatly about Columbia's past/present/future.

It seems like ages ago that all the local talk was about how to redevelop Columbia. There were meetings, a charrette, lawsuits, and eventually legislation and a 30-year master plan was passed.

Then there was the sound of crickets.

Lately, things have been picking up again. Property owners in Columbia are making plans and working the three-hundred-eleventy step process to inform and include the public in the redevelopment. The Mall broke ground (well, a wall) on it's newest section, a new residential section west of The Mall has been approved and Whole Foods has announced it will open a lakefront store. Plans for Symphony Woods (aka that ghost forest around Merriweather that you only spend time in if you want to get publicly drunk in May or drive through a lovely Christmas light display in December) have been submitted, evaluated, sent back for improvements, improved, and resubmitted to the public for input.

Let the hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing, garment-rending commence!

Seriously, the naysayers are out. The press (and maybe even the blogs) give an impression of the naysayers that seems outsized. The thing about Columbia is that it's not just a town. Columbia is an idea so big it is almost a being. Every discussion about change in Columbia includes reference to "what Columbia is all about".

Well, what is Columbia all about?

Columbia is about diversity - of people, incomes, spaces, religions, and thought. It's probably what Columbia is best known for, even if it falls short on really honoring diversity at times.

Columbia is about the arts. The arts are about connections that span generations, races, ethnicities, experiences. We may tend to think of the arts as extras, as icing on the cake, but they are actually vital to human existence. The drive to experience and create art in any form is universal and innate. Columbia does an excellent job of connecting people to that drive.

Columbia is about engagement in the world at any and every level. From block parties to Village Boards, swim teams and PTAs, houses of worship and community service organizations, and public hearings on all manner of laws and plans and developments, I learned the value of civic engagement not just from my parents, but from my entire town.

That, my friends, was by design. James Rouse designed Columbia to be about diversity, the arts, and engagement. As I wrote to the Columbia Association in my letter of support for the Symphony Woods plan, Rouse said, "I believe the ultimate test of civilization is whether or not it contributes to the growth - improvement of mankind. Does it uplift, inspire, stimulate, and develop the best in man? There really can be no other right purpose of community except to provide an environment and an opportunity to develop better people."

If you ask me, that's what Columbia is all about.

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