Columbia must be welcoming to everyone.
We have amazing opportunities in Columbia. Our city is home to more than 100,000 residents. WalletHub recently ranked Columbia as the best place in Maryland to rent a home. One of the guiding principles of developer James Rouse was to create a diverse, integrated and open community. He envisioned a city where people from all economic, racial and religious backgrounds would live, work and play together. Stories abound of Jim Rouse thinking street-by-street and house-by-house to ensure the achievement of true and transformative integration.
Integration made Columbia a special place for the children and families that settled here in the earliest days of the city. Children in apartments shared playgrounds with children from single family homes. Black children went to the same swimming pools as white children. School classrooms included students from many different economic and religious backgrounds.
Fast forward to today. WalletHub also recently found Columbia to be the 77th-most diverse city in the US (6th in the state of Maryland). While our city has remained home to people of diverse backgrounds, our neighborhoods are not so integrated. Looking at demographic data at the census tract and block group level, we see patterns of racial concentration that could lead to segregation in a city that aspires to integration.
I am the executive director of a new nonprofit organization with a mission of championing and sustaining thriving, racially integrated neighborhoods in our community. The Columbia Housing Center is modeled off the Oak Park Regional Housing Center in Oak Park, IL, and will launch our first services later this fall. We promote racial integration in Columbia by helping prospective renters find available apartments through referrals that expand a renter’s search and that encourage home seekers to consider a wider variety of neighborhoods in Columbia.
However, as we work toward promoting residential integration it is clear that more work is needed to ensure that people who live next to one another become neighbors. A quick scan of the Brave Voices Brave Choices stories shows a sampling of the experiences of residents in the area. One recent story recounted how a home was vandalized and the victim immediately blamed a black teen neighbor for the incident. When it was found that this young person was innocent, an apology was offered but “the damage was done.” Another longer post recounts challenges between a Black renter and a White homeowner in a townhouse community. This post ends with the same phrase:” …but the damage was done.”
For more than 50 years, Columbia has prided itself on being a welcoming community and a place that embraces diversity in its residents’ backgrounds. Merriam-Webster defines “welcome” as to greet hospitably and with courtesy or cordiality and to accept with pleasure the occurrence or presence of. As the Columbia Housing Center facilitates moves that promote racial integration in housing, it is important that our neighborhoods become the communities that James Rouse envisioned: places where people of all backgrounds find not just housing, but also find home. Columbia’s homes and communities must be welcoming to everyone.
Executive Director, Columbia Housing Center