More is at Stake than Just Sandtown, Rouse Says Columbia's Founder on Hope for Poor


James W. Rouse pioneered the enclosed shopping mall, built Columbia, one of the nation's largest new towns, and found ways to revitalize decaying downtowns with such developments Baltimore's Harborplace.

But the 81-year-old developer says he's now doing "by far the most important work" of his life: Trying to create affordable housing and functional neighborhoods for the poor.

The Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit agency to provide affordable housing, founded by Mr. Rouse and his wife, Patty, in 1982, aims to establish a national model by transforming West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.

Enterprise is leading a broad effort to create jobs, train young adults, prevent crime, renovate neglected housing and restructure failing school and health systems in the low-income community. In November, the foundation launched a five-year, $78 million fund-raising effort to help start similar projects


Mr. Rouse, Enterprise's founder-chairman, retired from his development firm, the Rouse Co., in 1979. He still lives in Columbia, the new town he created 28 years ago. In a recent two-hour interview in Enterprise's Columbia offices, he reflected on Sandtown, America's inner cities, Columbia and his roots. Here are some edited excerpts:

Q.: Do you think there's salvation for the most troubled inner cities?

A: Yes, I do. It's beginning in Sandtown. . . . I was just asking myself, what's the cause of this? Here's the richest country in the world, with probably the most highly developed management capability, and yet here's what's happening to our people in our cities. There's got to be a better answer. And I concluded, with others here, that the cause of this is the amazing state of mind that there's nothing that can be done. . . .

There's an attempt to do something with schools, there's an attempt to do something with health care, there's an attempt to do something about drugs -- single shots being made all the time at these conditions, but that won't do it. . . . It is my conviction

that we cannot seriously improve the lives of the people at the bottom of our society today unless we do all these things at one time. And it is my conviction that it is far easier to do that all at one time than it is to approach the problems . . . by the single-shot approach.

Q: What is Enterprise Foundation's mission?

A: Its mission is to see that all very poor people in the United States have fit and affordable housing and the opportunity to lift their way up and out of poverty into the mainstream of American life. . . . We have worked with over 500 nonprofit neighborhood groups helping them become effective developers of housing in over 150 cities. That work has made us feel gratified. . . . But at the same time . . . we've been sickened by the condition of the cities and the way they continue to go downhill year after year after year. . . . I don't think we can continue to prosper as a society when so many millions of poor people are going downhill. There were 24 million people in poverty in the late '70s and 34 million in the '80s and now 38 million in the '90s. Every year the joblessness, homelessness, school dropouts, murders all increase.

Q: Given all these difficult problems in Sandtown, and in other cities, do you think the will in this country is great enough to try to solve them?

A: I do. . . . We're actually working with the city of Miami and the Overtown neighborhood in Miami to achieve the same kind of neighborhood transformation. . . . Our role is to transmit lessons learned. We would hope within the next five years we would be similarly engaged in 10 cities. We hope that this can demonstrate successes of raising up understandable models of the possible and thereby become a movement in the United States. . . . to transform the neighborhoods in which the very poor people live in this country in a serious and constructive way. . . . This is just beginning.

Q: Do you need popular support? It seems a lot of people are moving out of the cities, and people already in the suburbs are willing to forget about the cities and their problems.

A: I think there will only be popular support as it is demonstrated that neighborhoods where the poor live can be made to work. Made to work means schools go up, health care goes up, crime goes down. And that way, there becomes a wave of recognition and new possibilities. That's the first thing to achieve a turnaround. . . .

People talk about the possibility of revolution in America. There are really two potential sources for the kind of turmoil people are describing. One source [is citizen militia groups]. . . . On the other hand, the other source of turmoil eventually is the millions of people who are living these dreadful lives [in inner cities]. . . . It's a bale of tinder, waiting for anybody to throw a match in it. . . . I've been living and working in the cities of America for over 40 years now, and these conditions we've never had at the bottom of the Depression. . . . And it can be solved. This is the terrible

and wonderful thing about it.

There's absolutely no doubt in my mind those three [Sandtown] elementary schools in the course of the next three years can become first-rate schools. . . . I think in another five years the health system can be established and operating. . . . I think there will be gardens. I think there will be jobs. There will be a new market. One thousand of the dwelling units in Sandtown now have been rehabilitated. . . .

This makes a difference in people to see it happening. It will make a difference in people who have their children enjoying going to school and learning something. . . . All these things matter. You're gradually building spirit. That's what's happening there now.

Q: Would you like to talk about Columbia?

A: Interesting to begin [discussing] Columbia with Sandtown. What we were able to accomplish in Columbia had a lot to do with making me feel that this was do-able in the inner city because we were changing systems out here. Before we put a line on paper in Columbia, we created a work group of 14 people from the behavioral sciences, from education and religion and medicine. And we met every two weeks for two days and a night for four months, exploring the optimum for urban life. What were they? What would be the best possible health system? The best possible school system? The best possible relationship among institutions?

The beginning was very hopeless. . . . The first night we met we went around the table and said, "Let's just everybody sound off on how you see this." . . . Every single person said in one way or another why this couldn't be done. . . . And I said at the end of that dinner, "I'm going to be a very rude host, but I've got to tell you this has been the most disappointing evening I've ever spent. . . ."

Well, I think we experienced in that short period of time what we're experiencing somewhat in a longer period of time in Sandtown. . . .

Columbia has followed through much more closely to the highest hopes we could have had for Columbia than I ever would have thought was possible. There haven't been many changes.

Q: In what ways has Columbia worked well, as you envisioned?

A: Fundamentally, the institutions have worked -- the school system. A whole new school system was designed for Columbia. . . . The neighborhood and village system has worked. The neighborhood in Columbia ideally is roughly 1,000 families, which produces enough elementary school children for an elementary school and a place for a playground, and this playground is the heart of the neighborhood. Kids can walk to school. . . .

The greatest single accomplishment in Columbia is interracial relationships. . . . I heard only rumors from both sides that white people would segregate if you try to do this. . . . [that] you're going to be sorry if you really are open like you say you're going to be, which we were determined to be. You're going to be sorry when black people and white people don't come. . . . The people who were afraid of black people would say, "If you don't recruit black people, they're not going to come because they won't believe it." We said, "We're not going to play God. We believe it will work."

We set up the Exhibit Center. When it opened, there were black and white mothers talking to folks, black and white children playing together, and of the 10 hostesses that there were at the center, four were black and six were white. . . .

Q: What hasn't worked well?

A: The transportation system didn't work out as it was planned. . . . There weren't enough sources of riders and destinations to be able to support the system. . . .

We also planned teen centers for every village, and they were built and operated. But pretty soon the police were having to put out fights. . . .

Another thing that failed is we had a 7-Eleven store or its equivalent in every neighborhood center. But the supermarkets came along and they opened 24 hours a day. . . .

I think there's one hole in [Columbia's governance] that looked ,, all right initially but now ought to be changed, and that's the voting system. I think the voting ought to be one person, one vote [instead of one vote per property lot]. . . . I urge it.

Q: One of your original goals for Columbia was you wanted Columbia to be a real city, not just a better suburb. Do you think you accomplished that?

A: I sure do. . . . There are 3,000 businesses in Columbia. There are 52,000 jobs in Columbia. There's a hospital in Columbia. There's theater in Columbia. . . . Out of 14,000 acres of land in Columbia, 5,000 [at its completion will be] public open space. We've got three lakes in Columbia that were built before it was developed. There's a lot of recreation programs, better than most small cities. . . . I used to say back in the beginning it would be a real city. It will not have a symphony orchestra or big-league ball team, but most of the other aspects of a city it will have.

Q: As you look back on all you've accomplished, what's allowed you or driven you to tackle such big projects, problems and issues? Why has it been you?

A: There's always been something there that needs to be done. And I think the fact that I became involved in the city made those possibilities very approachable. Therefore, I was drawn to them.

I was lucky in what would be regarded as disastrous ways. I lived a life in a large family, a good-income family. . . . We had all the conventional advantages. . . . We had a large house, living in a small town [Easton], which was a special delight. But in 1930, my mother died in February. I graduated from high school in April. My father died in August. And the mortgage was foreclosed on our house in October. . . . I was ready for it in the sense that we had a wonderful family. I was just 16 years old at the time. I had to live in a boarding house in the last year or two. My mother and father were both in the hospital the last year of their lives. . . .

I felt I was old enough and conditioned enough to be able to handle it and it would be very good for me. I remember feeling guilty at the time thinking, "How can I feel this way? . . . Why am I not distressed?" And I really wasn't.

Going through those years equipped me for what came -- the Depression. I came to Baltimore. . . . I was the youngest of six children. . . . I graduated from high school at 16 and they said, "You're too young to go to college." So they sent me to private preparatory school. I had a year there. Then I had no money. I couldn't go to college. But I invented some way, and the invention was to get out to Hawaii where my sister was married to a naval officer, and I could go to the University of Hawaii free. . . .

Then I came back, got a scholarship to the University of Virginia. In that second year, in March of '33, all the banks in America were closed for four days. You can't imagine that happening today. Couldn't cash a check, couldn't pay a bill. Couldn't do anything. There was a real immobilization of commerce. That made me know I couldn't go on to college any further. . . . But you could go to law school after two years of college.

So I came to Baltimore and got a job parking cars in a garage. I was paid $13.50 a week for 54 hours of work. . . . I went to night law school. . . . I went up to the dean at the University of Maryland, told him I wanted to go to law school. He said, "You can't afford it." . . . I said, "If I wait a year, I won't go back to school again." So he finally agreed [that] if I paid $100 down and $5 a week he would take me to law school. I went to my local bank and managed to borrow $100. . . . And I paid $5 a week, and that was my first year of law school.

All that was very good for me. . . . It made things be possible. And I think that had some effect on some of the things I attempted as life was going along. People will ask me questions: "What made you decide that you're going to work in the suburbs, that you want to do something about the inner cities?" And I said, "This was no Paul on the road to Damascus kind of thing that hit me. It was just a natural growth of the road that I was on." And I think that really started in a small town with some problems to overcome and continued with the problems of the Depression. I believe it conditioned me in a way that accounted for my life.

Adam Sachs is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He covers Columbia.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad