WASHINGTON -- Saying visionary developer James W. Rouse has had a "very special impact" on his life, President Clinton yesterday awarded the urban-renewal pioneer the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his uplifting work in American cities.
The 81-year-old developer -- who lives in Columbia, the Howard County planned community he created, and who has launched a national affordable-housing foundation -- was one of 12 humanitarians honored, two posthumously.
If more American developers had followed Mr. Rouse's lead, "We would have lower crime rates, fewer gangs, less drugs," Mr. Clinton said at a White House ceremony. "Our children would have a better future. Our cities would be delightful places to live. We would not walk in fear, we would walk in pride down the streets of our cities, just as we still can in the small towns in America."
The medal, the nation's highest civilian honor, was established 50 years ago by President Truman to honor war heroes. In 1963, President Kennedy expanded the honor to recognize outstanding civilian service.
Mr. Clinton credited Mr. Rouse with devising "a blueprint for reviving community" by building Columbia, a 28-year-old town of 82,000 residents that aimed to break the mold of suburban sprawl and its "corrosive effect on our sense of community."
He praised Mr. Rouse for working toward "healing the torn-out heart of America's cities" through downtown economic development projects, such as Baltimore's Harborplace, and his strong stands against economic and racial segregation and in support of affordable housing.
"James Rouse's life has been defined by faith in the American spirit," Mr. Clinton said.
Mr. Rouse, orphaned as a teen-ager in his native Easton, struggled through school during the Great Depression. He rose from parking cars in Baltimore for $13.50 a week to founding and heading one of the nation's most successful real estate firms -- before turning his attention to uplifting downtrodden inner-city communities across the country.
After the ceremony, Mr. Rouse said the "single biggest roadblock" to improving conditions in American cities today is "nonbelievers, the negative thinkers."
"There's a great failure in the United States as a society to recognize the terrible conditions," he said.
"Here we are, the greatest country in the world with the best problem-solving ability, and we're wringing our hands about the city. There's a tacit acceptance that this is the way life has to be."
Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, called Mr. Rouse a "bona fide genius with prodigious stamina and energy for urban issues."
He said he has often sought the developer's advice and referred to Mr. Rouse's Enterprise Foundation's "neighborhood transformation" projects in Baltimore's impoverished Sandtown-Winchester community and other cities as possibly "his greatest contribution of all."
Mr. Rouse said he was honored to be included among medal winners, who are leaders in environmental protection, civil and labor rights and children's health and education.