Thursday, July 29, 2010

My Secret America

Here's my ed note in Capital Business this week:

I read with special interest last week The Washington Post's three-part series on "Top Secret America" because what the paper described as "the capital of an alternative geography of the United States" is my home.

I reside in Columbia, near Fort Meade and the National Security Agency north of Washington. My father was one of those people who never talked about what he did, and he was hardly alone. It didn't really register with me until I went off to college that I seemed to know a lot of mathematicians and engineers and people who wore badges on chains around their necks.

I think I began to get a sense of our alternative geography when I spent a couple summers delivering flowers for a local shop. My trips would invariably take me to many of Columbia's nondescript buildings, some without posted addresses. The local maps were not reliable, so I learned to cast about for delis, bars and barber shops to ask for directions. Sometimes I guessed where I needed to go by spotting a security guard -- who in those pre-Sept. 11 days always seemed out of place in the sleepy suburbs.

True story: As a reporter, I also once spent a day at the site of what would become the National Business Park across the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from the NSA. I was there to do a story on a fellow who was hellbent on saving frogs from the bulldozer. He would spend hours collecting the amphibians so he could move them to safer wetlands elsewhere. His efforts didn't seem nearly as creepy as the van idling nearby, watching us.

It wasn't until March 9, 1991, that the NSA, after 37 years, erected a sign formally acknowledging its presence in our parts. I know: I wrote the story.

Friends often complain to me that Columbia seems so bland, and reflecting on it, perhaps that's how Top Secret America likes it. But to live there is to know better. It's hard to hide one's private passions, as many merchants will tell you. Just hang around the wine racks or the Nordstrom shoe department. I once did a story on a local landmark, an outdoor biker bar called Daniels that sits just yards off Route 1. It was late afternoon and many of the stools were filled with guys and gals in leather, their gleaming Harleys parked nearby. Several, it turned out, worked for one of the contractors in the area or the "Defense Department."

It's a special club, the national security industrial complex. During the telecom boom, I knew acquaintances who jumped from government service to funny-named start-ups specializing in fiber optic gadgetry. Many of them made out handsomely, like they saw the future before the rest of us.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wilde Lake's Village

Kimco's plan is out. What say CA, the Interfaith Center and the Howard County school system? Aren't they key partners in whatever happens?

Will there be a village in the new town center?

Sounds like a mission for a community planner, and lo and behold CA apparently has hired one, a professional planner by the name of Jane Dembner, according to this story in the Flier.

As the first village to have its shopping center slated for a major overhaul, Wilde Lake leaders were quick to welcome Dembner’s attention.

“As soon as she came on board we asked her to come out and listen,” Wilde Lake village manager Bernice Kish said.

Although parts of the redevelopment process at the Wilde Lake center, owned by Kimco Realty Corp., already are underway, village board members have expressed a desire to craft a more widespread master plan for the entire community, addressing traffic and roadways, connections within the area and other factors, Kish said.

“She’s going to be invaluable to us when we look at doing that kind of encompassing plan,” Kish said of Dembner. “It will be a true master plan for the entire area, not just the village center.”

One thing that’s clear to Dembner about Columbia is the “great pride” she sees residents take in their community.

“I do think it’s special here. We all have a stake in it. I know this as a resident.”

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Where's the Wow?

The owner of the Wilde Lake shopping center has offered its vision for remaking the village square, according to the ExploreHoward blog.

Two-hundred apartments, an open courtyard, a 27,000-square-foot food store and a 14,000-square-foot stand-alone drug store are among the elements planned for the future of the Wilde Lake Village Center, according to plans outlined for residents Thursday night.

The proposal, on which planners hope to break ground in summer 2012, was described to residents by Geoff Glazer, Kimco Realty Corp.'s vice president of development for the mid-Atlantic region, as a "balancing act of what we can do, feasibly, what the market will let us do and what we've heard from you about what you think is important as a community."

The redevelopment of Wilde Lake — Columbia's first village shopping center, built in 1967 — has been in the works for several years by Kimco, the company that owns the majority of commercial space at the center.

Reaction seemed to be mixed. And then there was this comment:

Though pleased with the plans, resident Michael Davis asked Kimco to incorporate a "wow factor" to distinguish the center as "the birthplace of Columbia."

Monday, July 26, 2010

Obstacle Course

We've seen a lot of schemes in HoCo to slow down traffic -- circles, speed bumps, speed humps, re-striping roads, rumble strips, increased patrols, stop lights -- that never seem to quite do the trick. But this little experiment in our neighborhood appears to actually be having an effect, and gradually drivers are getting the idea that they are SUPPOSED TO STOP when pedestrians are in the crosswalk.

In our tests, motorists stop about 65 percent of the time. But if we catch the driver's eye, the percentage goes higher. Regardless, the combination of narrower lanes and that little sign in the middle of the road does force many drivers to slow down.

Shortly after the obstacle course went up, we witnessed one driver who tried to fly through the intersection only to clip the curb, bash her rim and pop her tire.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Weekend Beats

Looking for something fun to do this weekend? We promised to pass this on:

Border Busting World Music Highlights International Day Festival on July 24th with the Guy Mendilow Band

The Guy Mendilow Band delivers its dynamic blend of Israeli and Sephardi tempered with Brazilian street beats and blues at Columbia’s International Day Festival at the Town Center Lakefront in Columbia, MD. The free festival runs from 12pm-10pm on July 24th and features live music, international food, crafts and children's activities. More information can be found at and

Blurring boundaries and connecting sounds, stories, rhythms and roots is central to the mission inspiring the Guy Mendilow Band.  Israeli peace songs and ancient Sephardi canticas meet Bahian street beats and blues. Drawing from a life lived in Israel, South Africa and Brazil, where musical collaboration cuts through ancient conflict, Israeli born musician Guy Mendilow is sowing the seeds of peace with music.

“The buoyant, life-affirming, sweetly acoustic music of Israeli-born Mendilow incorporates influences from across the Middle East, South America and beyond. It's a folk music of hope and affirmation, sophisticated in its delivery but easily accessible to listeners anywhere. ” Chicago Tribune
It’s no surprise, then, that the Guy Mendilow Band includes world class musicians from Israel, Argentina, Japan and the United States. Or to find the group partnering with international peacemaking organizations, such as Seeds of Peace, whose work with Palestinian and Israeli youth and adult educators helps forge the personal relationships so critical to communication and reconciliation.

The Guy Mendilow Band challenges your concept of borders as you listen to Sala’am, an Israeli anthem used during the peace marches, that subtly introduces Brazilian elements in its arrangement and whose warm harmonies nod to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Or take the tastefully modern setting of the ancient Sephardi song Durme Durme, sung in that melting pot language of Spanish, Arabic, Greek, and Hebrew, created from the wanderings of the ancient Jews from Spain to the Mediterranean and Middle East. Mendilow pushes the sonic envelope by taking ancient instruments in new directions, though the band does this whimsically, with an almost adamant refusal to take itself too seriously. For instance, in Whistler’s Brother, Mendilow’s award-winning overtone singing playfully duels with a flute. Or Blues for Dino, a tongue-in-cheek slide berimbau (musical bow and arrow) blues number — a tip of the hat to Brazilian berimbau hero Dino Nascimento. The band’s fusion stems from a life-long cultural mix infusing most aspects of Mendilow’s life.

“This isn’t for quirky ears, it’s for jaded ears that need to be shaken awake with something substantially different that keeps the interest on the beam throughout. Delightfully different, even when it seems like it might be familiar. ” —Midwest Record

On a personal level, Guy’s musical mission is to explore the connection between places he’s called home. Out in the world, he has oriented his band around the premise that music, and music making, can play a unique role in the effort to transform “the other” into a fellow human being to whom one can at least listen, if not necessarily agree.

 “It was the height of Apartheid and my family, though secular and Israeli, was invited to participate in one of the only integrated church services in Johannesburg,” Mendilow recalls about the sparks of this passion. “We were sitting in my elementary school gym after-hours, a large gathering.  The service was almost entirely singing: blacks and whites together, in beautiful harmonies. It lit something strong in me.”  Throughout his childhood, Mendilow and his family played continental hop-scotch, with community singing in the living room as an important way of connecting with others.
To Guy Mendilow the music cannot be separated from the message, whether you are part of the audience at the Chicago World Music Festival, New York’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center, in a master workshop with government education ministers from Palestine, Israel, Jordan or Lebanon, or swapping songs between Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the 26 diverse young people in the American Boychoir — Mendilow’s first touring experience. The Guy Mendilow Band continues to blur musical boundaries and offers its modest contributions to today’s larger peace puzzle: by creating person to person connections, one song at a time.  

Thursday, July 22, 2010

CA Opposes New Tennis Center

 The Columbia Association is fighting plans by a nonprofit group called Howard County Tennis Patrons to build an 8,000-seat tennis stadium, 12 indoor courts, 18 lighted outdoor courts, a clubhouse and offices, according to the Sun. The HoCo Council held a public hearing this week and has scheduled a vote July 29. The patrons are seeking approval of a 40-year lease on 14 acres of county land near Troy Hill in Elkridge.

Every group represented at the hearing supported the plan except for the Columbia Association, which operates 24 outdoor and 9 indoor tennis courts throughout the planned town. Chief Operating Officer Rob Goldman said tennis earns CA $1.7 million in revenue annually in fees and he fears the loss of $500,000 a year after the new complex opens.

"I don't feel there's enough demand to fill all these courts," he said, adding that the county would subsidize the nonprofit by covering any deficit, taking only a percentage of revenues as rent and plowing half that back into the facility. That's unfair competition, he said.

State: Two More Schools Miss Mark

From the Flier:

Six of the 58 Howard County public elementary and middle schools failed to meet the state’s standards for annual improvement based on their Maryland State Assessment scores, according to data released Tuesday.

Last year, four county schools did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress, a standard set by the state that is raised each year.

Despite the slight increase in schools missing the mark, Jose Stevenson, the school system’s director of Student Assessment and Program Evaluation, said the numbers are encouraging.

“When you get to a higher level of performance, the increments of progress get smaller, and it’s not unusual for the numbers to dip slightly,” he said.
Noteworthy in the assessment data is the fact that in the past few years, elementary schools have increasingly had groups of students receive a 100 percent pass rate. This year, 10 schools had at least one instance in which an entire grade level of students passed an assessment in reading or math. There were nine schools in 2009 and six schools in 2008 that had perfect pass rates.

The schools that did not meet the 2010 progress standard are Jeffers Hill and  Veterans elementary schools, and Mayfield Woods, Murray Hill, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake middle schools.
County school officials are planning to dedicate extra support to those schools, according to Terry Alban, the school system’s chief operating officer.

Those six schools all reached the 2009 state standard, but Oakland Mills Middle missed the mark in 2007 and 2008. Because it did not reach the standard for two consecutive years, Oakland Mills was placed on a list of schools the Maryland State Department of Education deems in need of improvement. It will remain on the list until it meets the standard in consecutive years.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Secret Life

WaPo has been shining a light on our quiet little hamlet of late, and today zeroed in on Fort Meade. The paper calls us a parellel universe, an "alternative geography of the United States." Maybe that should be our new handle.  No more are we the Next America.

Henceforth, we are the Alternate America. But shhh!, don't tell anyone.

See the coverage in its full glory here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Short Stay And The Power of Staying The Course

Friends have been telling us that our weekly note to readers in Capital Business reads like a blog, so we permit us to re-post here:

This time a year I'm often asked if I have any plans for the summer.

Mostly my vacations revolve around shuttling my son hither and yon to soccer tournaments. But I did take my one and only true break last week.

It involved a single overnight, a birthday present to my wife.

We made our pilgrimage to the Inn at Little Washington.

Like a lot of folks, we've often wondered if the place was really as good as its reputation.

Well, we got our answer. The food, the service is simply to ... die ... for.

This column is much too short to do our stay justice. We found pleasures in the simplest of gestures, the tiniest of tastes. We ordered the inn's tasting menu and before the first of our seven courses arrived came a variety of treats. One was a small cube of barbecue pork belly. I'm the kind of guy who prides myself on working a grill. I like to measure my cooking times in hours, not minutes. My meat in pounds, not ounces. But after that one bite, I'm ready to throw away my recipes.

Throughout the visit, I couldn't help thinking how our whole stay had been shaped by years of trial and error. Chef Patrick O'Connell started the restaurant in a garage (shades of the dot-com boom!) and opened the inn in 1978. The guest house is now part of a little village of cottages, gardens, a gift shop and more. There's talk of adding a spa one day.

That lesson in longevity was one reinforced before we arrived at the central Virginia inn. We started the day with a stop at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson near Charlottesville. We've made many trips to the historic site and its gardens over the years, and as I grow older I have come to appreciate just what a labor of love creating that place on the top of a little mountain was to the nation's third president. Jefferson spent 40 years designing, building and remodeling the estate.

These days so many businesspeople are in such a hurry to establish something new and exciting and then look for a hasty exit -- as if they don't really trust their creation. My vacation this year let me reflect on the power of building a business bit by bit by bit, until it becomes part of the DNA of a place.

Our stay at the inn might have been brief, but it left a lasting and happy memory.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bike Lanes To Where?

The county has been repaving streets in our Oakland Mills neighborhood, and we were pleasantly surprised to see some new bike lanes appear....

...only to see them disappear just as quickly. Now, granted, the road narrows in certain places, but you wonder if these lanes lead to a false sense of security. One moment after we took this photo a school bus roared by, and believe us, there wouldn't be room for the two.

Wouldn't it make more sense for the lanes to steer a rider to the sidewalk in such tight quarters?

As we pondered that question we wondered who designed these lanes... a highway person or a bike person? Then we saw this story.

In some places, the bike lanes disappear because there isn't enough room to create turning lanes for cars. Stevens Forest Road is not exactly a highway. Do we really need turn lanes? What would happen if cars had to slow down a little?

We commute daily to DC, and we can testify to the fact that there is nothing that makes us want to hop on a bike faster than to see two-wheelers coast on past us as we crawl in city traffic.

The Stevens Forest lanes also take a rider to Broken Land, except only the bravest riders would venture there.

So we assume these lanes are part of a work in progress, a step -- or turn of the pedal -- in the right direction. But only a step.