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Jim Rouse's Best Idea for Columbia Ever

I have so enjoyed the past three sessions of "Creating Columbia", a "mini course" on the early history of Columbia offered by the Columbia Archives and led by Barbara Kellner.  The most recent series of three classes is being offered again on three consecutive Thursdays, beginning on April 30th.  Unlike the series I attended, this time around the classes are offered in the evening.  I recommend them!

The subject for the session I attended this past Monday was, "Jim Rouse Juggles the Big Picture and Details".  More than the previous sessions, this one gave me a sense of what Jim Rouse (the founder of Columbia) was like as a person.  Barbara had collected a wonderful series of memos and stories that illustrated Rouse's involvement with little details like the decision to rent a film projector instead of purchasing one.  But she also offered some illustrations of Rouse's capacity for Big Ideas, including some which were truly out-of-the-box. 

My favorite was this one:  Rouse had apparently been involved with conversations between the Baltimore Museum of Art and Joseph Hirshhorn, the financier who had amassed over the previous decades one of the largest private art collections.  When it became clear that the BMA was not going to become the recipient of the Hirshhorn collection, Rouse started thinking.  On January 19, 1966, he write a letter to Charles Parkhurst, the Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and suggested that the new community he was creating in Howard County could, as a whole, become the new Hirshhorn museum.  He asked Mr. Parkhurst to forward his ideas to Mr. Hirshhorn which he supposedly did.  Whatever Hirshhorn thought of the idea, he decided in the end to give his collection to the federal government.  A new Smithsonian museum was the eventual result.


Barbara Kellner kindly send a copy of the letter Rouse wrote which reads in part:

Suppose the entire city of Columbia became the museum for the Hirshhorn collection!  Suppose the main plazza at the edge of the lake in the heart of downtown was the sculpture garden.  Suppose there was a permanent gallery designed into the main, enclosed mall retail center so that great art was brought elegantly and intimately into relationship with the marketplace.  Suppose each of the nine Village Centers had small galleries and each of the nine Village Greens small sculpture gardens so that the collection was moving continually through the whole city.  Suppose that art education in the schools, the junior college, and the university was integrally related to the collection.  Might this not be an opportunity to infuse the population of a new city with great art in a way our country has never known?  Might not such a development revolutionize in America the relationship between art and people?  Might not this idea be so new and challenging that it would attract resources to assure the execution of such a plan at the highest standards and with the greatest possible effectiveness?

It really gave me a laugh to think of Hirshhorn's collection hung in the Columbia Mall--perhaps on those portable bulletin boards that they use for the exhibit of art made in the schools each year.  But then I realized I had it backwards.  Can we envision the Hirshorn Museum at the center of Columbia--with a Sears, a Macy's and a Nordstom's attached to the side?  What if the elevators to the food court looked like the ones at the Hirshhorn museum?  Best. Idea. Ever.


When I'm Happy I Make Art: Remembering Wes Yamaka


(All images used by permission of the artist, Wesley Yamaka--with thanks to Ken Katzen for scanning!)

Yesterday, Rosa's French class was practicing the future tense by writing little stories in the style of "When You Give a Mouse a Cookie".  Each student had to imagine the future result of a present situation:  when I go to the moon, I will see stars.  When I see stars I will get a headache.  When I get a headache...well, you get the picture.  Rosa said she had to finish the sentence, "When I am happy..."  "I actually had to think about that for a while," Rosa told us over dinner.  "I finally wrote, 'When I am happy I will make art."

How true.

The developer who planned Columbia, Maryland, Jim Rouse, was motivated by a strong belief that the design of a city could makes people's lives worse or it could make people's lives better.  He built Columbia as an experiment in better living though design.  The part of that plan that I think about most often has to do with the policy and design decisions which led to real racial and economic integration among the residents.  But the kind of human flourishing that Rouse was seeking to promote wasn't just about social equity.  He was looking to promote human development on a very personal level--he believed that given the right set of physical and social conditions, people would grow to be fuller and happier human beings.  

How would you ever test such a hypothesis?  Howard County often boasts these days about its "high standard of living" which usually refers to economic prosperity.  That's something that we can measure although I'm not sure it is really something to brag about.  How do you know that the people who live in a community are flourishing in the broadest sense of that term?  

One of the best ways I know is to examine whether the people in the community are making art.

Yamaka-Walk in Miracles

There are some great stories from the early days of Columbia about people blossoming as artists.  Two of the New City's most prominent artists, John Levering and Wes Yamaka, were key leaders in the Kittamaqundi Community, the church I now serve.  Wes Yamaka died this past week in Oregon where he had lived with his wife, Rose, for many years.  I never had a chance to meet Wes, although we did connect by email.  I feel connected to him in large part because I have lived and worked in a building that is filled with his art.  

I've learned a bit about Wes from members of my congregation who knew him and from some print material, especially this pamphlet published by the Columbia Association (passed on to me by Mary Carrington--thanks!)  Wes and his family had been forced to live in internment camps during World War II, along with many other Japanese-American families on the West Coast.  It was a degrading experience for his whole family which left Wes feeling like "a second-class citizen."  Wes first came to Columbia to work for the Columbia Cooperative Ministries, the group that coordinated religious life in the new community, especially the village interfaith centers and the programs that brought together the various congregations that worshiped there.  He was excited by the openness of the religious institutions in the New City.  He must have had a sense that in a setting like that, he could grow himself.

In 1970, he left CCM to work for the Rouse Company, but within a few years he left that position to open Columbia's first art gallery with John Levering who also had been working for the Rouse Company.  Located in a historic stone building next to Oakland Manor, the gallery was called "Eye of the Camel".  Until the gallery closed in 1977, Yamaka created and sold original silk screen prints there.  Wes Yamaka eventually returned to the West Coast and to his work as a United Methodist minister.  But he continued to make art for the rest of his life.  

There are still artists all over Columbia, and we even have a cooperative gallery run by local artists.  But I believe that everyone has the capacity to make art--not just official "artists".  I love the recent trend in our schools to create cooperative art projects like the recently installed mosaic in Stevens Forest Elementary School.  Each kid in the school made a tile which the artists composed together into a forest scene.  Why not do something like that in our Village Centers?  Can you imagine a neighborhood coming together to make something like this:IMG_0946

Connecting with "Our Kids"

Last week, I read so many different articles and reviews about Robert Putnam's book, "Our Kids:  The American Dream in Crisis" that I feel like I have a pretty clear sense of the book's argument and don't need to add the 400-page tome to my seriously backlogged reading list.  Or maybe its just that I've found what I've read so far depressing and need to wait a few month until I'm up to reading more.  Putnam doesn't just prove that income inequality is growing significantly in the United States, now accepted as a fact by people from all parts of our political spectrum.  He shows why it matters--in short, income inequality is killing the American Dream.  Kids who are born into poverty today are significantly less likely to ever get out of poverty than Putnam and his peers were in the 1950's.

The book that made Robert Putnam famous, "Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Revival of American Community", first appeared as a journal article in 1995 which was then picked up by the popular media.  His argument made a big impression on me and I still think of it often.  

At the time, I was working in a small urban church that seemed to illustrate perfectly the social trends Putnam wrote about.  In the 1950's, the church had been much larger but it was also organized differently.  Everyone was in a church-affiliated club that met to sing, study the Bible, do occasional service activities and (most importantly) socialize.  The church's parlor was filled with old trophies from church-affiliated basketball and baseball leagues.  The result of all this joining and meeting was something Putnam and other sociologists call "social capital".  By making an analogy to other kinds of economic capital, the term makes the point that our connections to each other have real value, not just for us emotionally, but for our community, our nation.

In "Bowling Alone", Putnam makes the argument that people in the United States have lost a great deal of the social capital they had in the 1950's.  Putnam makes his point with statistics on the decline of bowling leagues, Sunday picnics and the Shriners.  His point rang true to me.  All the clubs and leagues which had defined participation in my church 50 years earlier were gone by the time I got there.  No one I knew was in a bowling league.

Since 2000, Putnam's thesis has been tested and challenged by lots of people.  His book was written before the explosion of social media which now connects us to friends and family in ways we didn't imagine 15 years ago.  Who needs a bowling league when you have Facebook?  

In his new book, Putnam makes a much more specific argument:  he shows that poor kids have less social capital than their well-off peers.  Over the past 50 years, poor kids have become less likely than rich kids to eat dinner with their families, participate in extracurricular activities at school or live among neighbors whom they trust.  Rich parents, on the other hand, are spending more time with their children than they used to--an additional hour per day compared to poor parents.  The Washington Post's Wonkblog reproduced many of Putnam's graphs in an article last week called, "The Terrible Loneliness of Growing Up Poor in Robert Putnam's America".  In the video promoting his book Putnam summarizes:

The core characteristic of being from a 'have-not' background in America today is that you are socially isolated from everybody.  That violates the core principle of the American Dream.

Income inequality, in other words, is self-perpetuating.  The more separated poor people are rich people are from each other, the less likely it is that poor kids will be able to improve their economic situation as adults.  They are stuck in poverty not just because their school isn't good or because manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas.  They are stuck because they aren't connected to enough people.  

So what should we do?  Putnam devotes the last chapter of his book to suggesting policies which would help to reverse this trend--more money for daycare and early childhood education, criminal justice reform so that more men are present in the lives of their children, an end to fees to participate in after school sports.  Overall, reviewers haven't been particularly impressed, noting that there is little will in Washington today to increase funding for social programs.  The new budget proposal introduced by House Republicans certainly suggests that is true.  Conservatives on the other hand take Putnam's statistics as proof that if only poor parents got married and made better parenting decisions, all would be well.

I'm no sociologist, but it seems to me that Putnam's argument demands a different response--the promotion of communities like the one I happen to be living in.

At the heart of Putnam's argument is the assertion that Americans no longer see all the kids in town, rich and poor, as "our kids".  We're separated from each other physically and emotionally so we no longer feel invested in the success of those who aren't like us.  So in order to turn around this trend we need to make it a whole lot easier for people from different economic groups to see each other, bump into each other and speak to each other.  We need to increase the chance our kids will play together.  We need more opportunities to cheer for each other's kids on the playing field or on stage.  This is, by the way, exactly what has been happening in Oakland Mills for the past 40 years.

Let me be clear:  I am as convinced as Putnam that significant policy changes are needed in this country.  The economic inequality is this country didn't just happen because we all stopped talking to each other--it is the result of a number of policy decisions which other authors have explained much more clearly than Putnam does.  But I am certain that policy doesn't just come out of people's heads and the charts and graphs they make to prove their point.  People advocate not just for ideas--they advocate for the people they know and love.  Policy may have disconnected us, but we won't change our policies until we reconnect.

Yes, I am talking about mentoring programs--I've seen first-hand the difference a mentor can make.  But we need to think on a much larger scale than that.  The thing that has made a difference in my family's life is housing policy--the Section 8 program and Federal funds to develop affordable housing.  Strangely, these aren't programs that Putnam seems to say much about.  If know that the 1% will always prefer to live in mansions surrounded by moats, but the rest of us could and would live more connected lives if our housing was more mixed together.

The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that the creation of dispersed affordable housing should be the primary focus of all our efforts to combat income inequality. 

The Power of Being Part of a Bigger Project

O-OBAMA-facebookPresident Obama's speech this past Saturday in Selma was compelling--if you haven't seen or read it in full, check it out here. The occasion, of course, was the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" when hundreds of non-violent protesters for voting rights were attacked by Alabama state troopers as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  I still had images from the movie "Selma" in my mind when I saw the pictures of Congressman John Lewis, one of the organizers of the original march, walking arm-in-arm with Barack and Michelle Obama across that bridge in celebration.  It was a striking and powerful reminder of the progress that our country has made.

Obama could have easily have left it at that.  He could have declared victory and spent the day patting the back of everyone who had been involved with the civil rights movement.  But he didn't do that, in part because the report on the Ferguson Police Department which was released last week made it clear that there is still a lot of work to do to eliminate racial discrimination in this country.  Obama also made it clear that the Voting Rights Act itself needs to be strengthened through congressional action.

But the part of Obama's speech that really touched me wasn't his call to complete the work that the marchers started.  Obama linked the struggle for civil rights in this country to "the American experiment in self-government".  He didn't just connect the fight for racial equality with other fights for equal rights and equal opportunities.  He connected it with the spirit that makes our country "exceptional":

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.

And then he called on everyone in the United States to continue the work of improving our country.  "Selma shows us," he said, "that America is not the project of any one person."

On Sunday morning, I was thinking about Obama's speech when I read the story that was on the cover of the Washington Post Magazine profiling three "Irrepressible Women", each of whom is now over 80, all of whom have had positions of great influence in Washington, D.C.  The subtitle read, "They had no movement, no support group, no 'lean in.'  They just worked to the top."

The article was very kind to these three amazing women, one of whom is a "close friend" of the author, Jodi Enda.  I appreciated reading about the variety of jobs during World War II and noted the credit two of them gave to Jimmy Carter who made it a priority to appoint more women to high-level government jobs.  But I wondered about the headline's claim--do they really see themselves as individual actors who worked their own way "to the top" without the support of anyone else?  It seems as if they do.  By the time the feminist movement became an organizing force in this country, they already had achieved success.  Did they mentor other women who came after them?  The reporter never asks.

I have a feeling these women could tell a different story if they chose to.  There may not have been an official women's movement to support them as they began their careers, but they were certainly encouraged by someone, inspired by someone, goaded and challenge and consoled by various people along the way.  Maybe there is something about being a "pioneer" that encourages you to view yourself as "self-made".  

But I prefer Obama's view of the world.  I would like to think that the spirit that makes someone think that they can make a difference in the world is one that we inherit from people who have come before us, people who we may not be related to, people whose struggles may have been very different from our own.  Obama linked the civil rights protesters to Lewis and Clark and Susan B. Anthony and the Lost Boys of Sudan and the cowboys who opened the West.  By doing so, he linked everyone listening with that community of struggle and challenged us to draw strength from all the fights that have already been won and to draw inspiration to continue the work of building a more perfect union.