Saturday, March 6, 2021

Welcome Wagon Wiki


I arrived in Columbia in 1999 about to begin married life with the wonderful fellow who has now been my husband for 21 years. I didn’t come here because: Columbia. I came here because this is where he owned a house. For his part, my husband orginally bought the house because his work was divided between DC and Towson. So: location.

Neither of us came here because of Columbia as a community concept, its ideals, amenities, nothing of the sort. And it took quite a long time for us to find out.

When I began to get inklings of this whole Columbia thing, I became convinced that CA ought to have something like the old Welcome Wagon service. New residents should be promptly engaged with information and offers that oriented them to the opportunities inherent in the Columbia way of life. Interestingly, I received some pretty consistent pushback on this.

“You just need to go to CA headquarters.”

“Why don’t you go to your Village Association?”

I didn’t buy that and I still don’t. People who arrive here now are at a clear disadvantage in comparison to those who came here during Columbia’s formative years. If we want to assure the ongoing life of what makes Columbia meaningful, outreach is key. We have to go to where people are, not wait for them to look for us.

I wrote a piece about this in 2011 in reference to how pool use is evaluated. 

Party: FAIL

Some excerpts:

The CA experience, the way that Columbia "was meant to be" is unknown and largely irrelevant to many of our residents. Institutions like this just can't survive without ongoing evangelism, and by this I mean outreach which is continually evolving to meet the needs of its community. Not just to the community we imagine to be the true Columbia. We are not all generally well-educated, generally middle and upper middle folks who can join CA and shop at the Mall.


Are we really going to where the people are and finding ways that are relevant to them to involve them in the benefits that Columbia can offer? Or are we using the same old ways to promote and expecting, no, requiring, people to come to us? 

This is why I was delighted to reach Jeremy Dommu’s piece in The Merriweather Post about recreating the old Columbia “Welcome Book” in the form of a Columbia Wiki. It felt as though he was singing my song. 

We can’t just expect people to know. There needs to be a process of community evangelism from the moment someone moves here. If we want people to be engaged, how do we engage them? Dommu’s concept begins to address that. 

One of the things that bothered me back when I was the parent of a young child was how hidden the playgrounds were here. I was just somehow expected to “know” about Tot Lots. It still burns me up that we don’t have signs where the pathways begin that indicate “To the Tot Lots.” Thanks to the leadership of the late Jane Dembner, we have a great deal more in the way of helpful pathway signage. But we never got my Tot Lot signs. 


Imagine you’re new here. What would you need to know? What makes Columbia special that has relevance to a new resident? How will they be welcomed into the experiences that make Columbia “tick”? If we create a Columbia Wiki, how will we connect people to it? Will we find ways to support that with human outreach and follow up?

A long time resident once defended many things about how Columbia is laid out by saying that Columbia was based upon the notion of “the joy of discovery.” In other words, you have to go looking for things because the joy is in the journey. While I understand the concept, where I think we are failing today is in making sure people know they are invited on that journey and that there is helpful support along the way.

The people who came to Columbia at the beginning knew quite clearly that they were a part of something special. If we want that to continue in 2021, we need to work at it.

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