Growing Up in a Diverse Shangri-La

A unique childhood in the planned community of Columbia, MD

As a young, white girl growing up in Columbia, MD, I sought out adventure with my Indonesian, Black, Indian, Hispanic, Native American, and Jewish friends. We chased fireflies through the creek on sticky, summer nights. We created imaginary kingdoms in the woods, full of magical creatures and quests. On the Fourth of July, my best friend — who was Black and Chinese — and I rented a paddle boat and sat in the middle of Lake Kittamaqundi to watch fireworks rain down all around us.

In high school, we’d sneak to the top of the tree fort at the tot lot hidden off the bike path. We’d lay back on the splintered roof and stretch out. And we’d take in the live music of our favorite bands playing miles away at Merriweather Post Pavilion’s outdoor amphitheater. The lack of noise pollution allowed the sound to travel far from the venue’s locale, deep in Symphony Woods. Staring up at a star-filled sky, we’d almost burst with happiness.

We looked forward to our school’s yearly Multicultural Fair, and the different foods and cultures represented there. On Sundays, I worshipped my God in an interfaith center where people of all religions held their services — often simultaneously. Many of my friends did not look like or act like me, and that’s what made them so cool. These are the things that defined my childhood.

“The unique thing was that I didn’t really feel that unique. Not that there were tons of half-Indian kids, just that there were kids of all different types of backgrounds. I do mean all types of diversity…race, religion, economic, etc. It felt like a small town, but with city amenities…It felt safe in the Columbubble.”

- Angie Beckman Baney, friend and former Columbia resident

My childhood home sits nestled in-between the wooded bike paths and creeks of Columbia, Maryland. My parents still live there — forty years after the house was built. I’ve formed an independent life 1300 miles west of Columbia, but I feel homesickness spark every time I return to visit. Although the community grows, much remains the same. I’ve lived away since college, but in my heart; it is the place that informed who I’ve become.

31.5 miles north of Washington, DC and 21.5 miles south of Baltimore, Columbia was founded on June 21, 1967. Most of its first residents — including my parents — were college-educated Northeasterners and Southerners who dreamed of a utopia-like community in which to raise their families. They fled the large, congested cities and their cookie-cutter suburbs to help create a new community with a focused vision of the future.

The original neighborhoods, named for literary visionaries like William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow weaved with poetically named streets: The Mending Wall, August Light, Endicott Lane. These odes to literature formed in clusters under the umbrella of “villages.” They sparked in me a thirst for imagination and adventure. Each day outside with my friends felt like a door opening on a new world.

Recently, I’ve spent much time thinking about this planned community of my childhood. I don’t want to cover the painful moments there with rose-colored nostalgia. I spent much of my teenage years thinking about how much I hated Columbia, and couldn’t wait to move far away from its boredom and suburban malaise. And we didn’t all hold hands, singing “tra la la la.” There were bullies — and I’m pretty sure I knew some “mean girls” with a middle school “SLAM” book — I may have even been one of them. But it wasn’t until encountering racism and xenophobia in college — among other harsh world realities — that I realized the kids of Columbia were lucky and blessed. And I was among their numbers.

I reflect on those from my childhood with whom I still maintain some contact. Most of us grew up and moved away, although some kids stayed and became integral members of the community. Across the board, the kids I knew then have grown into stellar adults. There were bloody and stupid stumbles for us all along the way, for sure. But many of my childhood friends have experienced wild success in their chosen professions, and Columbia has produced a slew of well-known names in its fifty-four years of existence as well.

For a time, Pulitzer-Prize winner Michael Chabon lived in my neighborhood. Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks comic strips and cartoon sitcom, attended my rival high school. Oscar-nominated actor, Edward Norton, lived next door to my family when I was a toddler. Years ahead of me, Norton graduated from my high school. I still try to find ways to interject this fun fact in daily conversation.

Norton’s grandfather, the visionary planner James Rouse, was the founder of our town. Rouse’s dream for Columbia came in the thick of the Hippie Movement of the 1960s, and he saw much of it come to fruition. In 1962, while Columbia was still in the planning stages, Rouse and his colleagues called it Shangri-La after the fictional utopia in James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon. Rouse didn’t want another Beltway suburb. He longed to create a self-sustaining, culturally diverse town. People from all socio-economic and religious backgrounds were invited to live freely as themselves, and thrive.

When I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, I took the intentional forward thinking and diversity of my town for granted. But I now realize the rare gift of Columbia. Even today, twenty-five years after I could last claim Columbia as my permanent home, the town’s unique qualities still shine. Columbia was a place of purposeful dialogue and community-building. A space where we were taught not to ignore our differences, but to embrace them and stretch ourselves to see from other perspectives. The vitriol and chasms dividing our country now rarely reared their venomous heads in my childhood. My friends and I felt safe from the evils of the world — safe in our unique self-expressions, and safe to grow into the adults we were destined to become.

“I felt like we were always learning new things…our education system seemed so forward thinking. Learning and wanting to learn was accepted. That type of expectation and education behind it was, say it with me…cool.”

–Patrick Brown, friend and former Columbia resident

In my elementary school, there were many Biracial kids, Black kids, Asian kids, International students, and, White kids. As a school, we celebrated Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan. I was raised in a practicing Catholic home, but I attended bar and bat mitzvahs. Our school system took Black History Month very seriously.

We openly dialogued about the atrocities of Maryland’s past, along with the triumphs of the Maryland Underground Railroad, and our notable black historical figures: Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Bannaker, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Thurgood Marshall. We were taught not to fear those who did not think or talk or believe like us. We learned a person is not defined by the color of their skin, or by their outward appearance, but by the caliber of their character.

Throughout my formative years, Columbia public schools — part of the larger Howard County School System — placed in the Top Ten list of public schools nationwide. Most of my classmates attended four-year universities after high school, with a large percentage attending prestigious colleges, including Ivy League schools. Our parents were doctors, lawyers, lobbyists. Teachers and coaches. Construction workers and hair stylists. And we were all given the same shots at a promising future.

Looking back, I realize how insulated my upbringing made me. I traveled stateside and internationally, but I didn’t experience the harsh realities of others. I assumed the rest of the country was on the same page as Columbia. I learned of the sin that stained the nation in the past, but I needed to recognize that it still seeped into much of the country. Columbia’s example could forge the way to nationwide healing, but the town stood as a unique place.

I visited Baltimore and DC often. Somehow, I returned to the safe arms of my hometown without feeling the scorching flames of the struggles of these cities. I understood the heart-rending issues of the past. I knew fear blossomed in the hearts of our ancestors, leading them to vile acts of hatred. In my naivety, I figured these struggles were mostly eradicated from America’s shores.

“It was just like immediate as soon as I got out into the world…I encountered all kinds of casual racism in things I overheard people saying…it was stuff I would have never heard before in Columbia.”

-Pulitzer Prize winner, Michael Chabon

My first foray living away from home stung me like a thousand poisonous spurs. I felt shock at the comments made by new friends. I had a potential boyfriend ask if I seriously knew black people “in real life.” I dumped him the same night. The ignorance and lurking racism in my new acquaintances made no sense to me — I thought everyone had grown up as I did. But the weeds of segregation and economic disparity seemed rooted in a vast number of other communities.

These gross encounters opened my eyes. Rather than run from discussions, I tried to dig deep with the people who spewed ignorance. I wanted to understand where and how they developed their views. I wanted to help wash the soot from their eyes and help them to see the wrong in their thinking. I didn’t want to act as a “white savior” — I knew I could never grasp what my friends of color experienced outside of Columbia’s safe haven. But I wanted to understand. I wanted to hear their stories.

“It wasn’t until college that I realized how segregated life can be…I have never let it be and that’s all because of my Columbia upbringing.”

–Anna Meiners Morini, friend and former Columbia resident

I grow weary of the cyclical crumbling discourse, isms, phobias, and fearful hatred hitting America in crashing waves. These issues have never eradicated themselves, but lurked in the shadows until recent years. When hatred and misinformation is dispensed as fact, large swaths of people eat it up. Those who secretly harbored anger, judgment, and fear of others became emboldened in their ignorance.

I wonder had I grown up elsewhere, if I’d have shared any of these erroneous beliefs and fears. I want to throw up when I imagine this possibility. And, I think again about Columbia. Diversity, education, and culture were so ingrained in me by my parents, my schools, and my community. My heart swells with gratitude for my upbringing.

I’m thankful James Rouse lived to see some of his dream come to fruition. If more communities could adopt the original mission of Columbia, MD, the chasm dividing us would grow smaller. The wounds division sets upon us would still need cauterization, but perhaps they could begin to heal. An infinite number of communities like the Columbia of my youth could change the world — I’m sure of it.

Special thanks to Angie Beckman Baney, Anna Meiners Morini, and Patrick Brown for sharing their memories of our awesome childhood hometown

5xs Medium Top Writer. Freelance writer of all things--fiction is my heartbeat. Believer. MD native in CO. Adventurer. Traveler. Wanderer. At times, funny.

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