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  Stephen Amidon

The idea for the novel originates with my family's move in 1971 to Columbia, Maryland, a model city designed and built by the urban planner James Rouse, the man widely credited with inventing the shopping mall. I was twelve at the time, just beginning to enter the brave new world of my teens. Before the move, I'd led a sheltered existence in the affluent suburbs of northern New Jersey while my father climbed the corporate ladder in New York. Most of the changes gripping the country swept right past our home. In many ways I might have been growing up in the 1950's.

But then Dad was sent off to head up the company's Maryland division and I found myself planted smack dab in the middle of Rouse's social experiment, a city where poor, rich, black and white were supposed to commingle in near-perfect harmony. I found myself in a place where I suddenly was on an equal, intimate footing with groups of people I'd never even met before. Army brats whose dads were just back from 'Nam; white trash fleeing the coal fields of West Virginia; ex-hippies who were hanging up their ponchos to raise families. And, most alarmingly, black kids, many of them from homes just as stable and prosperous as mine. My costly sheltered childhood, with its easy stereotypes and materialistic buffers, was a thing of the past.

My overriding early memories of Columbia were how utterly strange it was. (When I recently read that Linda Tripp lives there, I was not surprised). How predesigned houses seemed to pop up overnight, complete with families that refused to fit so neatly into the design. How the high school's black, Civil Rights-veteran principal, Mr. Gibson, used to pepper his morning talks over the intercom with homages to Dr. King, including his unforgettable "I have a dream" speech in which he set out a vision of a school where there would be no tardiness, where trigonometry would sound through the halls and the drinking fountains would flow free of clogging gum. How the four clergymen who used to run the Interfaith Center--Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian and Jew--used to get together to play doubles at the local tennis court each Monday. Or the day the students at the just-opened high school were asked to choose a mascot and came within three votes of naming their football team Led Zeppelin. Or the day my friend Skip and I rode our five speed choppers through several acres of a freshly poured concrete mini-mall foundation, creating swirling patterns that I like to think remain to this day. Everything was new, untested, open. The old rules simply did not apply. In many ways, it was the perfect place for a young American writer to grow up, this city where the old dreams of equality and homesteading were put to a very modern test.

Of course, not everything was so pleasantly quirky. There was a darker side. Although blacks and whites mixed freely on some levels, many of the old taboos remained--especially when it came to sex. My own infatuation with the altogether lovely Crystal Kensler met serious resistance, not least from my horrified mother who could not shake her upbringing in segregated Detroit. Some of the black boys we hung out with--no more devilish than the rest of us--ran into serious trouble with the Howard County sheriffs, difficulties that seemed to have less to do with their behavior than the attitude of those in authority. And I also came to realize that some of my classmates had fathers who'd been to Vietnam and that this was not such a good thing. One of these men--our next door neighbor--would spend hours and hours in his basement, building a vast and intricate model train set that eventually grew to possess several miles of track. A man, I should add, who had recently been a full colonel with several thousand men under his command.

Of course, many of these things have stuck with me through the years, informing the people and characters of The New City. Now that I am the husband of an Englishwoman who is preparing to emigrate to the United States and the father of four young children about to assume the American half of their dual citizenship, I find myself thinking of this altogether unique city as representing the nation to which I'm bringing them. My four-year experience in Columbia (my father was to take us back to the safety of Bergen County in 1975) served as a sort of radical apprenticeship to American life. Indeed, while working on BBC Radio or Television as a commentator on American issues, I occasionally find myself speaking of Columbia as a distillation of the country's values and recent history. And when I travel around America--working on an article for Esquire or researching a film about small town life for HBO--I keep finding hints of its dizzying, naive optimism. The New City is the novel that I have been preparing to write for the better part of two decades, whether composing a collection of short stories about a subdivision of pre-fab houses or writing a novel about a housing development destined to disappear into the Arizona desert. And it is no mistake that it is set in the summer if 1973, which was not only the transitional season of my life (I was fourteen, under serious siege from puberty), but also the country's, as we came to terms with the Sixties and that tricky genie down in D.C. who we'd conjured to deal with all those revolutions. A writer is lucky if he gets to inhabit a magical place while still young enough to watch and learn. For me, it was the strange, hopeful city I have tried to capture in this novel.

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Copyright © 1999 Stephen Amidon.