Rouse thought we were up to his vision: Are we?


AMONG THE blessings of life in Columbia one must count the visionary thinking of Jim Rouse, a man who spent his life searching for the best way to promote human potential, to protect civilization and to renew the American Dream.

He left the building blocks of community living, high expectations, problem-solving forums -- and permission to bail out on them if they didn't find a way to solve pressing problems.

His evocation of a new civilization and a new way of thinking offers guidance and consolation today for a city confronting challenge and change. He never promised a utopia.

His writings make clear his lofty aspirations: He wanted a new brotherhood, a new commitment to democratic living, an end to alienation, a renewal of hope.

He thought people would strive for more than a single-family house, a two-car garage or 9,000-pound SUV.

Knowing it would need constant alteration, he put a sophisticated mechanism in place.

"From the work of the resident-elected Columbia Council, village boards, neighborhood associations and special groups established by community, the people of Columbia are giving strength, substance and meaning to the life of the city.

"In the area of governance, architectural control, community schools, recreation, day care and early childhood education, the community has demonstrated the beginnings of a process that will continue long after construction is complete."

He wrote this in a report to residents five years after Columbia began.

What would he have thought about the decision of some Columbia parents to bus their children out of their neighborhood to a school they think will be better?

He would have been distressed, surely. He was certain that proper scale would make his 10-neighborhood city function optimally.

But he expected change. And he may well have sympathized with those parents who took dramatic action.

Columbia founder's hope

In the late 1960s he wrote, "People are drawn by logic and reason and by deep yearning for beauty and order and a good life. He was addressing himself to abandoned city dwellers -- but likely imagining that people in new town villages would have similar hopes and dreams.

"Fulfillment of the promise will require the participation of people," he wrote. Time would bring problems, but a process was available to make needed changes.

He wanted a "New Town," not for novelty's sake but to prove the validity of his convictions about people and environments in which they thrive.

He was not embarrassed to express himself in the loftiest, most hopeful of terms:

"Each of us," he wrote in 1969, "is an indispensable part of a cosmic process. Each of us has special gifts to be evoked and employed. The institutions we have created in government, education, health, church and business are our servants in that process. It is our responsibility to transform them, [or] abandon them, build new institutions as appropriate to the service of man in the service of God.

'A new brotherhood'

"Having been handed the greatest capability and the highest life expectancy in the history of man, it is our destiny to bring forth, perhaps in this decade, a new life, a new society, a new brotherhood."

He occasionally spoke as if the ideal had been achieved:

"The openness of the community to people of varied backgrounds, ideas, ages and aspirations is among its outstanding characteristics; the vitality of the people in working at the task of building a community and reaching out to help build a better county.

"People are ready and willing to do the job that is necessary to make their community work."

He did not leave the job to individuals alone. Strong institutions would be needed, but he was certain they would evolve if individuals were challenged and fulfilled.

"Can the relationship of home, school, church and community be such that there is some alternative to loneliness, some relief from fear and hate? Don't worry for the moment about feasibility. It will compromise us soon enough. Let's look at what might be and be invigorated by it."

That caution seems appropriate now as Columbia residents try to sort through cross currents of educational theory, politics and personal decisions.

Jim Rouse thought human problems could be solved best in small towns and villages.

"A broader range of friendships and relationships occur in a village or small town than in a city. There is a greater sense of responsibility for one's neighbor and a greater sense of support for one's fellow man," he wrote.

Over time, he thought, new structures would allow "our civilization to grow better people, more creative, more productive, more inspired, more loving people."

It was a conviction and a challenge.

He thought we were up to it.

C. Fraser Smith is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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