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Rouse's failure in Sandtown-Winchester

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a claim in a Sun story. Roughly $130 million in public and private money was put into the neighborhood between the early 1990s and 2000, but the Abell Foundation was not among the funders. The Sun regrets the error.

When Jim Rouse retired in 1979 as CEO of the company that bore his name and built the city of Columbia and Baltimore's Village of Cross Keys, he made it known he had no plans to retire from an active life. He was not going to spend his last years as a tourist or golfer. He was determined to continue doing good. He set up the Enterprise Foundation as his vehicle.

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The retirement work that he was most proud of and was the most difficult was the reclamation of the West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. When Rouse took on the Sandtown-Winchester project in the early 1990s, the neighborhood was in as bad shape as any neighborhood in the country. On almost every street there were abandoned houses. Of the houses that were lived in, 80 percent needed serious work. The unemployment rate for men was at 44 percent. On all statistical indicators, the neighborhood was at the bottom or near bottom.

Rouse, Baltimore United in Leadership Development and the city joined forces. Mayor Kurt Schmoke called the housing part of the program the Nehemiah program, after the Old Testament prophet instrumental in rebuilding the destroyed city of Jerusalem. A task force was formed consisting of two people from Enterprise, two from the mayor's office, three residents of the community, and a few others from relevant city departments. Nine work groups were formed, each chaired by a resident, to work on projects related to schools, job readiness, health care, security and community governance. Neighborhood meetings on two successive nights drew 600 residents.

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Now about 25 years and more than $100 million later comes the news that there are more people from Sandtown-Winchester held in state prisons than there are from any other census tract in the state. As Justin Fenton of The Sun reported, it costs the state $17 million a year to take care of the 458 current inmates; it's money that could be better spent.

This latest news about Sandtown-Winchester is heartbreaking. The implication is that all the effort and money that went into this huge project yielded little that lasted. Despite his enthusiasm and dedication, Rouse had his doubts all along. Residents tended to be preoccupied with personal grievances and found it difficult to focus on issues that would not have an immediate impact. The bottom line for Rouse in all his projects was whether they would lead to personal growth in the people affected by them.

But there are some lasting legacies in Sandtown-Winchester. On the grounds of an abandoned bakery, 200 new homes went up. They were prefabricated brick rowhouses — two-stories tall with three bedrooms. They cost $87,000 each to build but were sold for $37,000, with relatively low monthly payments. Many older homes were rehabbed. Social services and education were improved. Trust was built and cynicism weakened. Unfortunately, the high crime rate persists.

In April 1992, in the wake of the verdict in the trial of the four police officers charged with beating Rodney King, rioting broke out in Los Angeles. It was around the time that Rouse's Sandtown-Winchester project was first taking off, and he was to give the commencement address that spring at the University of California, Berkeley. On commencement day he was recovering from quintuple bypass surgery, and so his son Jimmy delivered the speech his father had prepared. In writing the speech, Jim Rouse had to deal with the question of why the black people of the Watts section of L. A. rebelled through burning, looting and random killings.

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He said that millions of blacks living in ghettos were alienated from the rest of America, "living helpless, hopeless lives — feeling no stake in our country — tinder for a radical torch." He spoke of the "saddened sullen faces, the hopelessness, the distrust, the suspicion, and separation" that pervade the lives of the poor. Sandtown-Winchester and its potential were surely on his mind.

Rouse was absolutely convinced that the changes put in place in Sandtown-Winchester would produce better lives. He believed Sandtown-Winchester could be a model for renewal in urban ghettos across the country. The current incarceration numbers, however, prove that Rouse was overly optimistic. It makes one think that some areas are too lost to be helped much.

Paul Marx, a Towson resident, is the author of "Jim Rouse: Capitalist/Idealist." His email is pppmarx@comcast.net.

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