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Book Review: New City Upon a Hill

For anyone who wants to learn more about our shared community, I can’t recommend enough New City Upon a Hill: A History of Columbia, Maryland by the late long time Columbia resident, Joseph Rocco Mitchell and his former student now Professor of History at Ohio State Dr. David L Stebenne. While calling itself a “History of Columbia,” it really is a history of the entire county from colonial times up to 2007 when the book was published. The book concentrates specifically on the development starting from the 1960s under real estate developer and Easton native, James Rouse. I wanted to share with readers some interesting facts that I learned, and I hope to pique your interest enough to check it out yourself.


The city was built to be explicitly racially and socioeconomically inclusionary, which attracted many Black and interracial couples to move to the area. Rouse developed townhomes, condos, and single-family homes together in the “villages” so as to foster mixing of people of all races and economic classes. The unveiling of Columbia was June 21, 1967, for context only 9 days prior the Supreme Court passed the landmark Loving v. Virginia ruling legalizing interracial marriages everywhere in the U.S. “Jim Rouse was thrilled that Columbia's first child was interracial and constantly used it as a promotion of Columbia's open-door policy."


Jim Rouse was so explicit in his racially inclusionary future that, one time, four Black families bought lots in a five house cul-de-sac and a fifth Black family was about to buy the fifth. Jim Rouse agonized over the situation, but asked the salesperson to steer the fifth family to another house until a white family bought the house.


Merriweather Post Pavilion and the title of this esteemed blog is named after Marjorie Merriweather Post of the Post Cereal family. She helped bring the National Symphony Orchestra to the Pavilion in 1967, but they went bankrupt after one year and only paid half of their annual fee $50k fee. "Money that Mrs. Post was expected to donate never materialized.”


In 1974, Columbia affiliated candidates swept the County Council and County Executive seats. At that time, all council seats were "at-large" and not separated by geographic districts as it is today. Fearing the dominance of Columbia residents, 1984 voters approved a councilmanic district bill that we have today. A political fight that is not too dissimilar to today’s national fights in presidential elections on the merits and demerits of the Electoral College versus election by popular vote count alone.


The book inspired me of what people can do when they come together to build community but also makes me sad about how in many ways we have moved backward from the visionary inclusiveness we saw from Mr. Rouse as our county and schools have become more segregated both economically and racially.


You can check out New City Upon a Hill from our award winning and nationally recognized Howard County Library System or buy it online. I read it using my digital Howard County library card. I highly recommend it if you want to learn about our county's history.


Disclaimer: I have no personal or financial interests or ties to this book or its authors.


About the author: Raised in Montgomery County, Kevin Chin has been a Howard County resident since 2019. He works as an Emergency Medicine doctor.

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