15 January 2008

New Towns, New Friends


Greenbelt Museum Curator Jill St. John (left) and
Education Coordinator Megan Searing Young

This evening, I went down to Greenbelt to attend a lecture on New Towns. The lecture was sponsored by the Greenbelt Museum and held at the Greenbelt Community Center. The Greenbelt Community Center is a converted elementary school. As I walked the halls, the center was busy with activities from basketball games to craft classes.

The lecture, entitled “New Towns,” consisted of a viewing of a WETA produced documentary called “New Towns” and a Q&A session. The lecture was well attended, with I would estimate 40 people in the audience. This included the Mayor of Greenbelt. Coffee and cookies were provided.

The documentary was a little less than an hour in length, and featured the New Towns of Greenbelt, MD, Columbia, MD, and Reston, VA. The documentary featured extensive interviews with James Rouse and Robert Simon (Reston). Topics of discussion included the basis for each new town, walkability, racial integration, and affordable housing.

Personal favorites of mine where black and white footage of Mort Hoppenfeld (and I believe Bob Tennenbaum), a discussion of how Greenbelt residents ultimately bought their town from the U.S. Government, and a great explanation of sculptures in downtown Reston by Robert Simon. He explained that the criteria stipulated to sculptors for downtown Reston was simple, the sculptures in downtown Reston had to give the public the ability to crawl/climb on them. The footage then showed a child crawling on a sculpture of a rowboat. It was pretty touching.

After the documentary, the chairs in the room were then rearranged in a circle for a discussion led by Greenbelt Museum curator Jill St. John. The first question asked was if there was anyone from Columbia or Reston. I put my hand up and said I was from Columbia. A man across the room from me then stated that he went to church in Columbia and that Columbia was built for adults and small children. He then went on to say that there was nothing for teenagers to do and that there was a high usage of drugs in Columbia. His third statement was that teenagers in Columbia lounge in million-dollar homes and want to do nothing more than live in the ghetto. Clearly, we were off to a good start. With all eyes on me, I (as best I could) calmly stated that I had moved to Columbia in 1972 and have experienced the city as a young child, a teenager, a young adult, and now as parent. I said that yes, there is a drug problem in Columbia, but it was my belief that the drug problem, specifically related to teenagers, was not any more prevalent than in any other community. I went on to say that when Columbia was founded, there was a teen center in Wilde Lake, and there is now one in Oakland Mills, and that there is an upcoming dance competition at the teen center.

I suppose if I had my wits about me, it would have been illustrative to ask what teen centered activities were available in Greenbelt, and could that be tied to a lack of drug use; however, I was not that quick on my feet. Maybe this could be a future collaborative point of discussion between Greenbelt and Columbia: “Keeping teens involved in New Towns.”

The next question came from a gentleman who referenced a point made in the documentary. In 1987, Greenbelt was in the process on upgrading a commercial center. An architect interviewed (I did not get his name, my apologies) said that he had heard from the community that gentrification was a concern. His quote was something along the lines of “This will not be a sushi, quiche, white wine crowd.” The gentleman in the discussion group asked “What is the white wine crowd doing in Columbia?” I responded by saying that as an integrated community, rich people need places to hang out too. I then followed up by saying that there are a variety of establishments for all types of people to shop and dine, and that one of the biggest concerns in Columbia was the loss of independent merchants and the prevalence of chain establishments. I mentioned that Bun Penny had recently closed, there were several audible gasps in the audience (note to the Ditters, if you are still reading the blogs, let me tell you, love for your shop runs wide and deep. Find a way to get the doors back open.)

The next question I got was about pedestrian access in Columbia. The question came from a very nice lady who had recently viewed a movie at the Snowden Square cinema. She then said that although restaurants were nearby, they felt that they had to drive to the restaurants.

The last question of the night came from Curator Jill St. John. She asked the group if New Towns where still relevant, and do people still want to move to New Towns. This question hung over the audience and remained largely unanswered. I believe this was probably the most important question of the evening. Maybe we can hold a seminar up here in Columbia, invite the Greenbelt faithful, and discuss in more detail.

In fact, I would hope we could have a Greenbelt contingent come up for the spring Bike About. I believe the Bike About would provide a better view of Columbia.

I hope I represented Columbia well.

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