Is Columbia, Md., really a spirit-enriching secular city?

I am not a huge fan of Utopian visions, but I have always had a fond place in my heart for the dreamers who have invested time and money in the movement known as New Urbanism. I love older neighborhoods that are close to shopping areas, especially those that have retained their old trees, wide sidewalks and other evidence that human life existed before automobiles.

So I read with great interest that recent news feature on the front page of the newspaper that lands in my front yard (here in a classic blue-collar community well inside the vast ring of Baltimore suburbs) that focused on the history of Columbia, Md. This sort-of community was born 50 years ago in burst of idealistic, truly liberal fervor and lots of money from founder James W. Rouse.

The goal, of course, was to built the perfect planned city in between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., one that would feature all the best elements of life while trying to avoid as much nasty stuff as possible.

The government planners and experts are still working on that, according to The Baltimore Sun. We need to start with the sentiment at the very beginning:

Ian Kennedy's short walk to lunch from his office in Columbia's Town Center takes him through shopping mall parking lots and a parking garage -- or along a sidewalk where lampposts block the way.

It's enough to make him feel that as a pedestrian in a car-centric community, he's in an "alien environment. ... A man on the moon, there are times you feel that way. Almost like you're trespassing," he said.

Perhaps that's not what Columbia founder James W. Rouse had in mind in his quest to create a new breed of city to nurture the human spirit. Fifty years after Rouse announced that his company had bought 14,100 acres in Howard County and was going to build a planned community, the latest effort to fulfill that aspiration has just begun.

The long and the short of this story is that the dang shopping mall remains at the heart of the community, not real people living in real homes and working in a network of easily accessible jobs.

The quest for the perfect community, one built around the elements of life that bring people together and "nurture the human spirit" remains unfinished. Readers learn that a true city needs a true downtown and, alas, that downtown is still the "doughnut hole" in the middle of the community.

As I read the story, I kept trying to find a list of the essential elements that go into any New Urbanism project, any attempt to allow real communities of real people to flourish in real neighborhoods that are within range of walkers, cyclists, etc. There is no list of this kind in the story.

This raises an interesting question: To the idealists who planned this non-city city, what were the essential elements that went into the plan? What are the essential institutions that help create the ties that bind, that bring people together around matters of the spirit?

You can probably sense where I am going with this.

Right. Where do religious congregations fit into all of this idealism?

This is an especially crucial question in light of the follow passage in the Sun report. Rouse, you see, wanted to erase some of the lines that normally divide people in American life.

On Oct. 30, 1963, Rouse issued a four-page news release announcing that he was the man behind more than 140 farmland purchases made over the course of about nine months of frantic buying under straw company names: Farmingdale Inc., Potomac Estates Inc., Serenity Acres Inc., among others.

Rouse hoped to avoid alarming his audience, so he never used the word "city" in that release, or in his remarks to the three county commissioners, whom he had briefed in a public meeting the day before. He certainly never mentioned his dream of a racially integrated community, not while he was beginning the task of winning support for a project in a county still in the midst of public school desegregation.

He wrote in the release and told the commissioners that his purpose was to create a "community," and he emphasized his intention to preserve natural features, create lakes, parks and "greenbelts that will separate and give identity, scale and protection to the developed areas." ...

Rouse, who had built the country's second indoor shopping center in Anne Arundel County, made clear that he had no specific plan, but he soon assembled a team of 13 academics and planners to work on it. They came up with four goals: respect the land; create a place to encourage human growth; create a "whole city," not just a suburb; and make a profit.

To make a long story short, the story never mentions churches or synagogues at all (the issue of Orthodox Judaism is always interesting, when one is talking about planned communities).

What I can't figure out is whether this holy ghost in a story about idealistic, spirit-enriching community life is a result of blinders at the Sun or among the planners behind the ongoing Columbia project.

Nevertheless, it's a strange American community that is completely devoid of religion -- like this story.

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