To the end, Rouse believed in decent housing for poor

April 11, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

We've all played God inside our heads, but when was the last time you did anything about it with your eyes wide open? The other day, maybe? Or did you chicken out, head straight for your shrink, and ask for a little bottle of pills to drive such dangerous, grandiose fantasies out of your skull?

Jim Rouse took his grandest shots all the time. When he died at home Tuesday morning, a few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday, he left behind lasting imprints on the historic landscape: not only Columbia, which was part city and part social experiment; not only Harborplace, which became Baltimore's symbol of rejuvenation when America was giving up on its aging, impoverished cities; but also this undying notion, considered so outdated by so many now, that we have to get past the ancient divisions of race and religion, and we have to find civilized ways to house those who are the permanently poor.

And if all this isn't pretty godlike, it'll have to do for now. He was not only America's most famous real estate developer, he was also a lot of people's public conscience.

The obituaries point out he was the first to use words that have since entered the language: "urban renewal" and "mall." There he was, back in the Ike and Mamie years, a real estate man leading the charge to suburban shopping malls while the places like Howard Street that had been downtown America's great commercial gathering places were emptying out.

But he was also, simultaneously, talking about preserving the cities when almost nobody else recognized the troubles that were just around the corner. A Rouse Co. Christmas card from the early '50s, for example, celebrated the firm's ties with Brotherhood Services Inc., a church-inspired group, in the renovation of a rundown Baltimore rowhouse.

Several decades later, invited to Washington for a museum honor, Rouse passed up the chance for a few gracious platitudes and told the assembled leaders of business, banking and government -- "the managers of our wealth," he called them -- that they ought to be ashamed of themselves.

He told them about people "struggling to survive in miserably unfit housing, in wretched, disorderly neighborhoods with too little food, too little health care ELLIPSES too little happiness, too little hope."

He was still talking that way in the final working period of his life. When he turned 80, and we talked about his reflections on a life spent holding onto ideals, he said:

"There's a pervasive state of mind that [cities] can't be managed, that they've overcome us. So we don't really make any serious effort to change things at the bottom. We want simple answers. They aren't here. But, whatever ought to be, can be, if there's a will to make it so."

He remembered sitting once in a garden with a bright little girl, who asked him for his philosophy of life. Rouse told her, "You don't have to win."

"That's it?" the girl said.

You do the best you can, Rouse explained. You try to win, but you have to satisfy yourself that you've done the best you can. That's the real victory.

He looked at Columbia, which must have swelled him with more pride than he allowed himself to show, and saw both victory and defeat. It had become a real city, with jobs and schools and a hospital and "more green leaves today than when we started" and, he said happily, "more interracial marriages than anywhere in the world."

But America's racial divide, he added, was "still deep. The old forces of segregation meant no jobs, no money. We're still reaping the whirlwind. It's not easy to fix."

One summer afternoon, not much more than a year ago, he strolled Harborplace, largely unrecognized by a big Sunday crowd. He knew, just beyond the harbor's festival atmosphere, there was crime and crumbling housing and accompanying tensions.

In the face of it, he reaffirmed his belief in cities but said, "the job's bigger now than it was when we built this place. The main job now isn't the center of cities, but the desperately poor neighborhoods."

He and his wife, Patty, had formed their Enterprise Foundation 15 years earlier, to foster development of low-income housing. It oversees more than $85 million in development funds. He felt good about that.

"But," he said, "there were about 30 million poor people when we started it. Now, there are 38 million."

There he was, 80 years old, still on top of things, still caring, still believing in the good fight. He picked a lot of big ones. He was a real estate man, but he had a conscience that transcended money. He wasn't exactly a god, but he created some worlds where others might have been content merely to dream of them.

Pub Date: 4/11/96

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