Two wonders of the world -- one worked

April 20, 1996|By Andrew Ratner

JAMES ROUSE'S fresh concept in retailing, the enclosed shopping mall, was greeted by breathless prose in 1958.

''Shoppers may ignore outdoor weather conditions and even leave heavy coats or boots in the center's lockers,'' The Sun marveled when Mr. Rouse opened Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie as the nation's second enclosed mall. The master marketer, he even imported palm trees and talking mynah birds in soaring cages to accentuate the comforts of ''climatized'' shopping over the outdoor version.

Some 40 years later, we, of course, know the rest of the story: Suburban shopping malls clobbered Main Street. And the way we shop and the places where we choose to live have never been the same. Though the late Mr. Rouse wore the grand term ''visionary'' as comfortably as his plaid sportscoats and porkpie hat, even he couldn't have predicted the retailing revolution that would follow his now-dowdy Harundale Mall.

Six years before Harundale, ''oohs'' and ''aahs'' welcomed another project to Baltimore that also carried great promise to improve the quality of life: The public-housing high-rises.

''Low-income, push-button living'' was how early accounts described these ''slum clearance'' projects. They afforded ''$50-a-week laborers penthouse views of the harbor.'' Balconies were built 6 feet wide because ''planners figured that this is wide enough to hold one baby's playpen and still permit easy passage in and out.'' Indeed, architects thought of everything: They even positioned the towers so that the hot setting sun would spill on those balconies and living rooms rather than on front stoops, since Baltimoreans were known to prefer spending evenings on their stoops more than anyplace else. Mr. and Mrs. John Greene, it was reported, had ''the honor of being the first to move into Lafayette Courts.''

Penthouses to warehouses

We now know the rest of the story: Those towers where the Greene family settled long ago were blown up last summer to make way for low-rise housing, which is now considered a more livable design. The formerly described ''penthouses'' are now ''warehouses for the poor.'' Baltimore will be the first U.S. city to systematically demolish all its high-rise projects, Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros said in a visit to town last week. The Clinton administration sees the city as a model in its program to tear down 30,000 dilapidated units nationwide. Residents will relocate to other homes in the city or receive assistance to rent or own homes in the suburbs.

Hindsight is 20-20. It does not take a visionary's gift to proclaim shopping malls a success, just as it does not require an Ivy RTC League education like Bobby Ehrlich's to declare public housing a mess.

It is simplistic and dishonest to paint this issue, as Rep. Ehrlich does, in the stark hues of Republican vs. Democrat, conservative vs. liberal, sense vs. sensibility. Surely, the high-rises built during Republican President Eisenhower's tenure weren't meant to fail. Nor was the Section 8 program unveiled by Republican President Ford. They were among bipartisan, well-intentioned initiatives dating back to FDR in 1937 to ensure ''safe, decent and affordable'' housing for the poor.

America has long been a land of short memories. Now, she's full of short tempers, too. Abandoning the poor is not our legacy and should never be. Everyone agrees about what has not worked. No one can guarantee what will. Doing nothing or maintaining the status quo are not options.

The current plan to disperse poverty from the urban core seems rational. Whether it will succeed, however, is anyone's guess. Alas, a generation or two from now it might seem as naive as old news clippings gushing over public-housing penthouses and air-conditioned shopping malls.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/20/96

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