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

July 23, 1995|By ADAM SACHS

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. . . .

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.