Rouse, the sea, conflicts, a Bonaparte

Books of the Region

May 30, 2004|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Eight years in his Columbia grave, James W. Rouse has become big on bookstore tables. Two full-length biographies are out, with perhaps more following. Native shoreman, planner, businessman and benefactor, above all a developer, Rouse was from the 1940s on a big name, locally and then nationally. Yet as people and problems change, will his Presidential Medal of Freedom image hold up?

Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James Rouse, by Joshua Olsen (Urban Land Institute, 367 pages, $34.95) is livelier, friendlier and more anecdotal than Merchant of Illusion: James Rouse, America's Salesman of the Businessman's Utopia, by Nicholas Dagen Bloom (Ohio State University, 223 pages, $49.95). Bloom is more analytic, and less sanguine.

Bloom is on the faculty of the New York Institute of Technology; Olsen is himself a Washington developer, with an academic background. Each dug into Rouse's voluminous papers, in the Columbia Archive. Considered together, these two books could turn a Baltimore dinner party into a food-throw.

Rouse's business career was marked by sequential specialties: mortgage banking, urban renewal, suburban malls, new towns, festival marketplaces and, finally, slum rebuilding. (Rouse Co. had its failures, but by now is owner-operator of some 50 regional malls.) Rouse himself, combining the energies of salesman and preacher, ever open to ideas and "a thoroughly decent human being" (Bloom), spoke to audiences beyond count; notably, in 1961, at the Church of the Redeemer, on "Christianity and the American City."

The difficulty is in saying how much solid, lasting change for the better has come out of it all -- the Baltimore Plan (to enforce housing codes), the carpark shopping centers, the middle-class, non-self-governing satellite cities, the middle-class downtown entertainment areas, even the rehabbed tenements. These movements combined capital investment (mostly from insurance companies), occasional partnerships of business and government, bright staff members, high-minded volunteers. But conditions change (think of depopulated Baltimore, sprawling and SUV-clogged suburbs); so do consumers' goals. And business itself changes -- the small firms that were to bespeak local character and initiative at malls, ousted for higher-rent, chain-store tenants.

If Jim Rouse shied off from jobs, schools and drug-crime prevention, well, no one can upbuild everything. At the end, what he cared about most was housing for the poor, overseen by his widely active Enterprise Foundation. Bloom zeros in on its much-publicized Sandtown-Winchester project: "The complex problems of these spreading zones of decay ... far exceed the limited resources of the private-sector solutions Rouse proposed." Some weekday evening, do drive over to West Baltimore and look for yourself.

William McCloskey's standing among the handful of important, living Maryland novelists is now secure -- however many Marylanders know his name, or however few. His trilogy on commercial open-ocean fishing in the North Pacific -- newly completed -- has made him a star attraction in Alaska and its business partner, Greater Seattle.

Readers elsewhere with a bent for wind and wave, and storm and rock, plus continuing action by the same, ever-older set of people, do include William Warner, whose Beautiful Swimmers remains the top literary tribute so far to Chesapeake Bay. Warner hails McCloskey as the writer of record on world fishing.

McCloskey's Highliners (Lyons, 408 pages, $16.95) led off; then came Breakers (Lyons, 368 pages, $24.95); Raiders (Lyons, 416 pages, $22.95) now wraps it up. These people, between 1963 and 1984, grow, labor, curse, brawl, are hurt and help one another. At 76, McCloskey -- traveler and adventurer himself -- is also the author of another novel, and two nonfiction books on foodfish-hunting in other seas. The while, he has had an unrelated land career, at the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins.

By 1645, after 11 years of white colonization, Maryland had progressed; the two population centers (St. Mary's County, Kent Island) totaled several hundred people. Lots of elbow room? Lots of uproar.

Instead of the founder-proprietor's intended manorial aristocracy, England-style, the colony was forming a pattern of self-supporting Protestant freeholds. Instead of creating a Roman Catholic refuge, and being attended by priests who lived like gentlemen, the governor was embroiled with the Society of Jesus -- it sought to convert the Indians, who were often busy fighting other Indians. As for Kent Island, Virginians -- there first -- had already tried, under arms, to recapture it.

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