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Builder of Dreams

Master Planner James Rouse Believed that Business Could Build a Better World. But a New Book Asks: Was Believing Enough?

Tom Chalkley

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 4/14/2004

The late James Rouse--Maryland developer, urban renewal strategist, and giant among those who have shaped the way Americans live, work, and shop--once dubbed Disneyland "the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today."

While Nicholas Dagen Bloom titled his new book about Rouse Merchant of Illusion, he says that's not to suggest Rouse set out to build places as illusory as the Magic Kingdom. Instead, Bloom--a Baltimore native now working as assistant social sciences professor at the New York Institute of Technology--dubs Rouse "America's Salesman of the Businessman's Utopia." And by this "utopia," Bloom refers to a world lorded over not by big-eared cartoon mice, but by a benevolent private sector, profit-driven entrepreneurs dedicated to building a better tomorrow, whether it was slumless cities, vibrant suburbs, or engaging public spaces.

"It's a fabulous dream," the 34-year-old author says on the phone. "I can't say that I don't want to believe in it. I think everyone in America wants to believe that almost everything that's good in society can be derived out of bottom-line thinking. I'm just asking the question, 'When exactly will we see this?'"

In Merchant of Illusion, Bloom poses the query while casting a critical eye on Rouse's half-century of endeavors, during which time he helped birth the planned suburban community (Columbia), the modern shopping mall (everywhere), and the urban "festival marketplace" (Harborplace and others). But while Bloom calls Rouse a salesman, he doesn't cast him as a winking, pocket-lining huckster.

"I do not in any way doubt Rouse's sincerity," says Bloom, who goes so far as to call him "the last great American progressive." Rather, his book posits that while Rouse possessed towering idealism and grand--if perhaps naive--visions, the same can't be said for those around him. The profit-seeking apparatus at the heart of his ventures, Bloom suggests, ultimately eroded many of Rouse's more noble intentions.

Bloom's major source for the book--which he admits is geared more for the university bookstore than the local Borders--was "box after box" of documents that the James Rouse estate gave to the Columbia Archives after Rouse's death in 1996. Together, he says, they present a picture of a builder whose yearn for reform was outdone only by his belief in the free market.

Rouse was born in Easton, on the Eastern Shore, in 1914, co-founded a Baltimore mortgage firm in 1939, and by the early 1950s had made a name for himself as progenitor of both housing and shopping developments. Cultural embarrassment as much as anything thrust Rouse into the realm of urban policy in the Cold War 1950s, Bloom explains: The United States was leader of the free world and the standard-bearer for capitalism, yet much of its urban poor lived in abject squalor.

"Rouse was profoundly concerned about the image of America and American cities as a reflection of the capitalist system," Bloom says.

In postwar Europe, he explains, government took the lead role in rebuilding shattered cities, while the Soviets distributed propaganda footage of their massive state housing schemes. Rouse, however, believed that free enterprise could solve urban decay with little federal involvement. This is when, Bloom writes, Rouse helped popularize the term "urban renewal" and became a proponent of its key motifs: highways slicing through cities, modernist office blocks replacing established streetscapes, and other bulldozer-based initiatives.

Close to home, Rouse was an avid backer of what came to be known as the Baltimore Plan, a slum-busting program of targeted cleanups, tenant education, and intense building- and health-code enforcement. In 1951, a few battered East Baltimore blocks were put under the plan, with spectacular results. A documentary film of the efforts made a national splash. But the efforts soon stalled, the media buzz faded, and as Bloom writes, there wasn't "sufficient will and leadership" to sustain the approach. The developer moved on to new projects, this time in retail.

Rouse didn't invent the shopping mall, but he jumped on the concept early and eagerly, with typically great expectations. While "mall culture" today suggests bland, corporate homogenization, Bloom writes that Rouse and other mall pioneers initially had lofty goals for their developments. The climate-controlled centers were to be the new Main Streets for America's burgeoning suburban lifestyle, and as such they would contain not only diverse merchants--like grocers, pharmacies, and doctors' offices--but also art galleries, little theaters, dance halls, and even churches. Rouse avidly touted these plans for his malls, and his 1958 Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie, since demolished, became the first enclosed mall east of the Mississippi. But over time, Bloom explains, the main purpose of the shopping centers--to make money for their developers--trumped Rouse's idealistic visions.

"Rouse attempted to make malls genuine public gathering places," Bloom says. "Unfortunately, this goal was not built into the actual machinery of the mall, which ultimately undermined their idea as Main Street." Balance-sheet Darwinism, he says, saw to it that only the fittest merchants--corporate chains--could survive.

Rouse then turned to his most ambitious project, and his most lasting legacy: the "New Town" of Columbia, which opened in 1967. Its impetus can be traced to Rouse's growing displeasure with the piecemeal, uncoordinated growth of suburbia, and in Merchant of Illusion, Bloom reveals that while Rouse was generally suspicious of European ideas, Columbia owes much to New Towns that were sprouting up across the pond, particularly in Sweden. He planned Columbia with a view to fostering both economic and ethnic diversity--calling for subsidies to cover 10 percent of housing, marketing with a stress on racial integration--and his approach proved attractive to many in the turbulent 1960s, with social progressives being among the first to move in. But Bloom quotes critics who deride Columbia's bland architecture, the parking lot-encircled Everymall at its center, and the fact that Rouse's goals for diversity still remain elusive. And, Bloom adds, the concept didn't catch on in other parts of the country, as Rouse had hoped. While the initial success of Columbia helped start a federal program to provide seed money for additional New Towns, none of them flourished.

"It was always [Rouse's] hope that once he demonstrated the usefulness of the profit motive in social policy, whether New Towns, or housing, or so forth, that it would generate imitation," Bloom says. But when those hopes too faded, Rouse turned back to the inner city.

Cynics have often noted that after Rouse's developments helped to suck the vitality--both economic and human--out of downtown Baltimore, he was only too glad to cast himself in the role of "city rescuer." But Bloom doubts there was anything quite so conspiratorial about Rouse's decision to focus on the decaying urban core. His brainchild for inner-city revival was the "Festival Marketplace," a concept first delivered in 1976 with Boston's Faneuil Hall, and brought to Baltimore as Harborplace in 1980: a mix of shopping center and attractive public space, enlivened with aspects of Baltimore's traditional urban emporiums like Lexington Market. Entrepreneurs and shoppers of all economic backgrounds would mesh in a colorful, organic mélange, Rouse hoped. But Bloom writes that Harborplace turned out to be "the Trojan horse of the suburban reentry into the center city."

"The horse itself was the idea of a local, zesty, flavorful market environment that would be created," Bloom says. "The danger inside the horse was that the engine that drove it was the hard-style mall management approach of ever-increasing returns."

To illustrate his claim, Bloom cites a Rouse Co. executive in 1981 who stated that that 90 percent of Harborplace merchants were from the Baltimore-Washington region. Today, a cursory stroll through the pair of pavilions--with their Hooters, Gap, and Cheesecake Factory outlets--shows how that claim failed to hold.

"The Rouse Company built delightful urban spaces," Bloom writes of Harborplace, "but proved ham-handed when it came to restoring small-scale capitalism and the intimacy and character of actual city marketplaces."

Rouse retired from the Rouse Co. in 1979 at age 65, and in his later years returned to the issue of neighborhood decay. He founded the Enterprise Foundation in 1982, another private-sector project targeting housing for the poor. Bloom calls the foundation, which promotes partnerships between for- and nonprofit corporations, Rouse's "most successful" undertaking, citing the sheer number of housing units it has affected. As in the 1950s, though, its efforts have been accompanied by lofty pronouncements that proved difficult to fulfill. Locally, the Enterprise Foundation has focused efforts on West Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood, where, Bloom notes, some 1,000 houses have been renovated or constructed. But still, he says, the ultimate result has been "an island of private-sector social democracy in an impoverished city." The crushing decay surrounding Sandtown, he observes, coupled with a citywide lack of jobs, has stymied efforts to bring lasting renewal to the neighborhood.

Indeed, if there is a unifying theme to Merchant of Illusion, it's that Rouse's profit-driven approach to tackling Baltimore's ills came at the expense of federal efforts, that plans like his served to lessen government investment in social welfare, particularly public housing. In certain circles, Bloom will no doubt be dismissed as a lefty academic chucking stones at a revered figure from the cozy precipice of the ivory tower. When asked what the response to the book has been from those who knew or worked with Rouse, Bloom offers, "No comment.

"I think Rouse himself would have enjoyed the book," he allows. "He was not above self-criticism."

But today, eight years after Rouse's death, Baltimore remains awash in squalid neighborhoods, and suburbia is still searching for its Main Street. Comprehensive planning, both private and public, remains a prickly proposition. Planned "towns" being built today tend to be socially stratified, gated golf-course communities. Meanwhile, a haphazard exurbia charges ever outward, public planning remains politically charged, and Maryland's Smart Growth program is being dismantled by an Annapolis administration with other priorities.

Despite a penchant for frumpy suits and an avuncular demeanor--or perhaps because of these likable attributes--Rouse was able to generate a great deal of excitement for his projects-cum-causes. The overarching illusion Bloom alludes to, however, might be Rouse's own vision of a private sector that was sincerely interested in improving the built environment.

"The illusion can be viewed in general terms," Bloom says. "It's the illusion of an American society that was genuinely committed to creating a perfect place--that there was a top-to-bottom commitment to creating a good society. And I think [Rouse] was a brilliant salesman of that vision."

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