I had to read Laura Lippman’s new book the minute I saw the title, Wilde Lake. Laura Lippman is a Baltimore girl, like me, so I knew the name of her book had to refer to Columbia.
Columbia was a new town when I was growing up in the late 1960s. Set midway between Washington and Baltimore, cute little villages developed around town centers with walking paths, pretty lakes and lots and lots of trees. Although we lived a good hour away, a visit to Columbia became a regular Sunday drive. My mother wanted to see the new houses under construction, walk through the Wilde Lake Town Center, peek into the indoor swimming pool (with such longing in our young eyes) and even wander through the Mall in Columbia on a Sunday. Even if the shops were closed in those Blue Laws days, we could marvel at the wonderful dollhouse in the toy shop and admire the stylish clothing shops. If memory serves, there was a teen shop called the Airport. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to buy my clothes there.
I don’t know how many Sunday afternoons our family drove there, piled in the green Ford Fairlane station wagon. I only learned after my mother was gone that she thought it would be a wonderful place to live.
So imagine my amazement at this passage in Wilde Lake:
“The Sunday drive was still in fashion the June day in 1969 when my father, mother, AJ, and I made our first trip to Columbia…We got into the family’s Ford Fairlane station wagon….”
Lippman could have been writing about my family — though in this story it was the father who wanted to live there and actually moved his family to a house by Wilde Lake. And as I read the book, I can see all the places she mentions. Sure, this is fiction, but her settings are ones I know or remember.
Columbia was built from Howard County farmland, the vision of a new city as imagined by developer James Rouse. Begun in the mid-1960s, it was designed to be an urban setting for people of all races and religions. Instead of suburban sprawl self-contained villages would contain everything families needed: schools, shopping, places to swim, ride bikes and play. There were meeting spaces and interfaith centers (rather than churches.) I even remember hearing that there once wasn’t a local funeral home. Hey, they didn’t need it. They were already in heaven.
I have always loved the lakes. Pretty little Wilde Lake surrounded by the original village. Lake Kittamaqundi, with a cluster of restaurants and offices, the Frank Gehry-designed Rouse Company Building, and a space for concerts and outdoor movies. And Lake Elkhorn, the city’s largest lake fringed by plenty of wonderful green space.
The town has changed since those idealistic 1960s. Nearly 100,000 people live here. The downtown has lost a bit of its woodsy charm. The edges sprawl like any suburb. But there are still many reasons to visit.
I still go to Columbia. A lot. The playgrounds and parks are amazing. The mall is my favorite — even without the Airport. Oh the memories of Jimmy Buffett, Sheryl Crow and George Benson at Merriweather Post Pavilion! Wine in the Woods is one of the town’s best festivals. (It’s May 22-23 in 2016.) Except for maybe the Columbia Festival of the Arts that celebrates performing arts both local and national at venues all over town.
Occasionally, I take a drive through Columbia’s original neighborhoods and remember when I was in the back seat, riding through the countryside to this shining new city. Mom saw the future back then. Now I remember the past.
ⓒ Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman
Laura Lippman’s “Wilde Lake” is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York.