The `Rouse vision' remains

The founder of Columbia died in 1996, but the spirit of his `Next America' lives on through residents who revere his name and his dream.

December 07, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

In Columbia, James W. Rouse - the father of the planned community - is nothing less than revered.

Statues of him and his brother are erected on the downtown Lake Kittamaqundi waterfront. Since his death in 1996, friends and colleagues have gathered annually at memorial services to remember him. Residents routinely quote him.

There are few towns in the nation where one man and his ideas are celebrated as much as in Columbia.

"People here worship Rouse," said resident Barry Blyveis, who has lived in Columbia's Owen Brown village for 30 years.

It is with fervent passion that residents debate what he would have wanted for the planned community. They invoke the "Rouse vision" when espousing a variety of subjects, and his spirit was resurrected recently during a debate over how the downtown area should be developed, a decision many believe will transform the heart of Columbia, for good or ill.

The Rouse Co. wants to add a few thousand residents to Columbia's Town Center, but some have questioned whether that is an idea Rouse would have supported. While testifying before the county Planning Board in May regarding the Rouse Co.'s plan - which the Zoning Board is considering after the hearings concluded last month - Wilde Lake resident Mary Pivar told the board: "I'm standing here thinking, poor old Jim Rouse. ... Right now, poor old Jim Rouse should be twitching."

Rouse developed Columbia in 1967 on the heels of desegregation, dubbing the town "The Next America," as a place where people of all races and backgrounds could live together. His influence on the town is greater than that of Robert E. Simon Jr. on Reston, Va., another planned community often compared to Columbia, because Rouse lived alongside Columbians until the end of his life, and residents' memories of him - often wearing his plaid or green sport coats - are still very strong.

"You don't find too many communities that are the product and the consequence of an individual anymore," said Jerrold Casway, coordinator of a scholars program at Howard Community College that bears Rouse's name.

Other Rouse namesakes include Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts at Wilde Lake High School and the Rouse Co. headquarters in downtown Columbia. The latter was the subject of a legal battle between the company and its landlord that could have resulted in eviction, and a possible name change for one of Columbia's most visible landmarks, an issue that ended when the Rouse Co. agreed to buy the building.

The town was Rouse's answer to urban sprawl. Today, more than 96,000 residents make their homes on 14,272 acres, living in 10 villages. They enjoy 3,400 acres of open space, buy their groceries and gas at one of the nine village centers and swim at one of the community's 23 outdoor pools.

To Rouse, Columbia was not just about providing people a place to live, it was about improving their quality of life. In the spirit of the 1960s, Rouse talked of his new town by using references to love and "growing people."

"It would almost be a kind of colder vision if it hadn't been Jim Rouse," said Josh Olsen, author of a forthcoming Rouse biography. " ... The fact that Jim Rouse was able to talk about love and talk about how people would get along in the environment, I think that appeals to the spirit."

Rouse's presence was manifest in Columbia. He lived in a house on the edge of Wilde Lake, where his widow, Patty Rouse, still lives. He wasn't only the man who developed the town, but he was the man who was there when people moved into their homes, walked the community paths, shopped at the stores and attended town meetings and celebrations.

"He was very, very visible," Casway said. "He was accessible, he socialized, he showed off his community to visitors and investors and to other dignitaries and VIPs."

Many Columbians learned about the vision that attracted them to the town by conversing personally with Rouse, and it was that personal contact that leads many Columbians to feel that they're essentially experts on what is routinely labeled the "Rouse vision."

In September, Barbara Hope, chairwoman of the county's Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing, warned the county Zoning Board that Rouse's vision for Columbia is in jeopardy unless the amount of affordable housing in the plan is increased.

After the company addressed the concerns, the coalition stated: "The group has echoed the call of James Rouse that the janitor and the company president will find housing in Columbia."

Residents also have called on Rouse's ideas when telling the Columbia Council how to behave.

Last year, Del. Elizabeth Bobo offered advice to the council and drew a parallel to a religious saying, suggesting that when making decisions the council should consider, "What Would James Rouse Do?"

Such religious parallels are not uncommon. Residents have called Rouse a saint on many occasions. Olsen said the religious metaphor drawn to Rouse "pops up all the time."

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