Authors debate Rouse legacy


For decades, James W. Rouse has been revered among developers and those in the communities affected by his work, which included the creation of Columbia and the development of festival marketplaces such as Harborplace in Baltimore and Faneuil Hall in Boston.

Eight years after his death, scholars are beginning to weigh his legacy -- and the starkly contrasting conclusions were on display at the University of Baltimore last night, at a debate between Rouse's first two biographers.

Nicholas Dagen Bloom, by far the more critical of the two, gave Rouse credit for good intentions, but condemned the results of his work.

"Rouse moved so fast [from project to project], he seemed to cast no shadow," said Bloom, author of Merchant of Illusion: James Rouse, America's Salesman of the Businessman's Utopia. "Now that he's passed away, the shadows have caught up with him. Perhaps I am one of them."

Bloom argues that Rouse was the ultimate salesman, and the product he pitched was the idea that private companies could cure urban woes.

This was a promise Rouse could not deliver, Bloom said. Even worse, it derailed public-sector initiatives that could have brought wider, lasting change, he said.

Joshua Olsen, author of Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse, is more sympathetic.

Olsen's book -- born of admiration for Rouse -- acknowledges some of the developer's shortcomings but ultimately praises him for the good he accomplished.

Rouse's projects in Baltimore and elsewhere, Olsen writes, led to other sites of urban renewal and enlightened city planning.

"A little bit of Columbia exists in every new development that stresses the importance of community," Olsen wrote, and Rouse's Harborplace project and malls led to similar ventures across the country.

As he told the crowd of about 25 at last night's forum: "Rouse was no huckster."

Even after his death, Rouse's philosophy still bears great weight in the business and the communities he revolutionized.

In Columbia's public meetings, people on opposing sides of a debate often quote its founder, as though Rouse's words should be the final word on any given argument.

His statue stands near the heart of downtown, and the first thing visitors see at the town's governing headquarters is a portrait of him, benevolent face smiling and with a hat in hand.

"He was a visionary, and once people in this town saw that vision, they embraced it," said Barbara Kellner, manager of the Columbia Archives.

Many of those who turned out last night were Rouse fans who moved to Columbia because of Rouse's vision.

Still, the group applauded politely after Bloom's speech, which blamed Rouse for the lack of progress in America's urban planning and public policy.

Olsen's presentation, however, focused on Rouse's upbringing in Easton, a small, close-knit town.

"He spent much of his career attempting to re-create that atmosphere for others," Olsen said.

In his book, Olsen argues that the failures in Rouse's ideas arose when others copied them imperfectly.

He created some of the nation's first malls, hoping they would provide a center for communities. But later developers focused only on the profit side of Rouse's business model.

His efforts for urban renewal were copied, but either failed or succeeded only in driving the original tenants out of improved areas.

"The copies are imperfect," Olsen wrote. "What remains important is what Rouse wanted for the originals."

Olsen and Bloom spent months in the Columbia archives studying Rouse's original blueprints. That their conclusions differ so widely is not surprising, said Kellner, who helped them both.

The emerging field of Rouse scholarship is vast, she said.

"There are so many more books to be written," said Kellner.

At the discussion yesterday, that was one thing both authors agreed upon.

"I don't believe mine will the last critical work on him," Bloom said. "But I think Rouse would have liked a debate like this. He was a man of ideas."

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