Alternatives to Violence, Part 2
Who's Not Here?

Stop Bombing, Start Building: Reflections on Last Night's Town Hall Meeting in Oakland Mills

When my husband’s father, Paul Davidoff, was running for the U.S. Congress in 1968, one of his primary slogans was:  Stop Bombing!  Start Building!  Davidoff Say Now!  I attended a Town Hall meeting hosted by the Oakland Mills Village Board last night that made me think it might be time for us to start wearing those campaign buttons again.

Dan and I have lived in the Oakland Mills Village in Columbia for a little over nine years now.  We love our neighborhood—love our street, love the bike path that we run on most mornings, love the people on our block and the sense of neighborhood that we’ve created together, and love the neighborhood schools our kids have attended for nine years.  

Oakland Mills is in “historic Columbia” as our realtor put it, and there is a bunch of older houses, town homes and apartments here.  As a result, we were able to buy a house here.  And as a result, our kids went to schools with a real mix of kids—a full United Nations of races and ethnicities and a full spectrum of economic levels.  Every single one of those kids was offered all the advantages of one of the top school districts in our country.  I still get choked up when I think about my sons’ graduation from middle school—the range of kids, the range of families, the passion of the principal and the teachers, the sense of joy and pride that we all felt at that moment.  I think it’s safe to say that it was the moment in my life when I felt most proud to be an American.

Still, Oakland Mills does not have the County’s highest ranked schools when it comes to test scores.  Our elementary schools, especially the one our kids attended, has a much higher percentage of students receiving Free and Reduced Meals than the other elementary schools in the county.  Then, last fall, Howard County Housing bought “The Verona”, an apartment complex right near our town center which has 20% of its units at below-market rent.  The County announced this purchase along with their plan to redevelop the complex into a high-quality, mixed income development in ten years when financing comes due.  This led to a community meeting about this time last year which included a fair amount of venting about how our community has more than its share of affordable housing and how we are suffering as a result.

I didn’t go to the meeting.  I thought about it because I am very interested in the health and well-being of my neighborhood.  I also value the principle of mixed income neighborhoods which is a big part of what attracted us to Columbia--and I think this principle should be a part of the development of every Columbia Village, not just the older ones.  But I didn’t believe that anything positive would happen at the meeting so I decided not to participate.  I'm pretty sure I made the right decision.

Some of the people who were opposed to the county’s acquisition of the Verona went on to form a group called the Reinventing Oakland Mills Task Force.  Last night, this group hosted a Town Hall meeting to review and receive comments on the new boundary lines for the Village Center which were approved by the Village Board in September.  The new boundary lines include the Verona and three other apartment complexes.  The leaders of the meeting (members of the Oakland Mills Village Board) were quite clear that their reason for this change is to encourage a developer to purchase and re-develop large parcels within the Village with the explicit goal of reducing the number of rental units by 50%.

In contrast to the meeting a year ago, there were very few people in attendance last night—maybe 25.  The conversation was mostly informational but things got a little heated at the end of the night.  My perception on the situation was that it was hard for many of us to move from talking about the problems (and giving evidence as to why the problems really are problems) to gathering energy to work together for a solution.  

When anyone expressed some hesitation about the plan, the response from leaders was to share information or opinion about how our community was in “serious decline”.  As you might expect, some people strongly agreed and some people got upset and defensive.  This led to a discussion about whether some comments about wanting fewer low income residents in the community were racist, or could be perceived as racist and by that point the possibility of generative conversation was pretty much lost.

Looking back on the evening, two things are clear to me.  First, it is time to stop bombing.  There has been a year (at least) of conversation in Oakland Mills about the problems that a concentration of low-income housing can generate in the community.  Some people think the problem is dire, others think the problems are highly exaggerated.  No one is changing anyone’s mind.  In the meantime, this conversation has an uncomfortable edge to it—it gets close to equating the revitalization of our Village Center with the removal of low-income people from the Village Center.  As Reg Avery said last night, that’s not what our country is about.  Whether or not that’s what anyone really meant, I think it is better to not let the conversation go in that direction.

Second, it is time to start building.  There was some really great energy at last night’s meeting about (1) the redevelopment of the pedestrian bridge across Route 29 and the positive economic impact this will have on the Oakland Mills Village Center and (2) the redevelopment of the current ice rink into an expanded sports complex that would be have a regional draw.  I loved the vision that this kind of discussion showed.  I found myself imagining what such a complex might look like, the jobs it would create, the other businesses that would be spring up as a result.

I’m a pastor, not a city planner or a developer.  I admit that I am more interested, ultimately, in how a community relates and connects and dreams and reacts than I am in the actual plans and boundaries and buildings.  But I saw again last night something I have seen over and over again.  It is easy to come together around anger or fear or frustration.  Negative emotions get people out of their homes and out to a meeting.  But anger, fear and frustration don’t create anything new.  They focus energy on problems but they don’t help us envision solutions.  It is time to shift the energy of this important discussion towards solutions.

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