Welcome to Utopia

In the 1950s, a developer set out to create an ideal town in rural Maryland. It was a risk then. Today, it’s a model.

The Washington Post Magazine, July 16, 2017

In an era when city living is virtually synonymous with cool, Columbia, Md., emanates suburban uncool. Located off U.S. Route 29 between Washington and Baltimore, Columbia is not a tight grid on the map, but a plate of spaghetti — a tangle of crooked parkways and cul-de-sacs. Cities reach for the sky, but Columbia hugs the ground, with shopping centers and man-made lakes passing for landmarks. In cities, 20-somethings get together at cafes for brunch; in Columbia, 40-somethings catch up while watching their kids at the pool or playground. Columbia’s version of a city hall is a nondescript building in an office park. The most colorful thing about the place is its twee street names, chosen from literature: Rivendell Lane, Marble Faun Lane, Rocksparkle Row.

Even residents agree that Columbia is, well, a little dull. “When we moved here, my boyfriend said, ‘The only thing you can really say about Columbia is that it’s convenient,’ ” notes Adrienne Neff, a 30-year-old resident who works at Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville. Van Doan, a 46-year-old lawyer who also lives in Columbia, recalls that, at first, “it struck me as a ‘Stepford Wives’ kind of place.”

Blandness is not usually associated with utopias. But while Columbia might appear bland on the surface, it was very much the product of idealism. The town’s developer, James Rouse, referred to it as “the next America.” When he set out to build the town in the 1960s, suburbs were already seen as soulless sprawl. Rouse’s vision was a response to that.

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Photograph from the Columbia Archives