INTERVIEW WITH JAMES ROUSE IN COLUMBIA, USA. PUBLISHED IN THE WATERFRONT REVIEW, Spring 1992, BY CARL MOMBERG
James Rouse was chairman of the Enterprise Foundation & Enterprise Development Co. based in Columbia, Maryland, USA. His projects set the benchmark for development at Cape Town’s Waterfront. His story is an inspiration… and if South Africans are looking for the attractive face of capitalism, here is one outstanding example.
‘Our projects flow from thoughtful, creative efforts to provide authentic responses to the needs and yearnings of the people they serve… to make life better for people and their communities. This is the surest way to create long term values.’ — James W Rouse
James Rouse has been the driving force behind several of the most significant developments in the urbanisation of America. With every decade, Rouse introduced a new concept to the nation, each embraced widely by the American public. In the late 1950’s the Rouse Company pioneered the large enclosed shopping mall. In the 1960’s, Rouse believed that proper planning could create the perfect city and integrated suburban community. He built Columbia, Maryland as proof. The 1970’s brought a burst of urban revitalisation spurred by the bright and exciting ‘festival marketplace.’ And finally, in the ’80s and ’90s, Rouse has dedicated his years of expertise and knowledge to an effort to provide decent affordable housing for the nation’s poor.
Rouse was born in 1914 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Orphaned at 16, he went to Baltimore to ‘seek his fortune.’ During the depression he parked cars during the day to pay for University of Maryland law classes at night. While in school, a 1934 clerkship at the federal Housing Administration very likely sparked the ideas with which Rouse would later change the nation.
In 1939 Jim Rouse founded The Rouse Company, a mortgage banking firm that financed housing and commercial property. Today it is the largest publicly-held real estate development company in the USA.
In the latter half of the 1940’s he was already deeply involved in the betterment of Baltimore. His dedication to the rehabilitation of the city’s slums led to an appointment to president Eisenhower’s 1953 Task Force on Housing.
It was here that Rouse is credited with introducing the phrase ‘urban renewal’ to the American vocabulary, and it was from here that he began his attempt to achieve it.
During the same period, Rouse made his fortune as one of the pioneers of the shopping mall. He is credited with the first use of the word ‘mall’ to describe the ‘suburban substitute for downtown.’
He built the first covered shopping mall; he introduced America to the convenience and the warm, lively community atmosphere that could be found in a place to shop; and was the first to reflect regional and cultural motifs in architecture and decor. Cherry HillMall in New Jersey was so well received that it inspired the town to change its name to match!
The 1960’s found Rouse increasingly concerned with the flight from the cities and the resulting haphazard growth and development of suburbs and other outlying areas. ‘Our cities grow by sheer chance, by accident, by the whim of the private developer and public agencies. By this irrational process, non communities are born, formless places without order, beauty or reason, with no visible respect for either people or the land.’
In Columbia, Maryland, he hoped to create the most harmonious response possible to the problems of urban decay and suburban sprawl. The city was assembled by the Rouse Company in the early ’60s on 15,000 acres of farmland to ‘bring a sense of order to the placeless suburban landscape and to provide former city dwellers with green suburban amenities.’ A 1988 article in The Washington Post notes that there is a certain irony – the man whose greatest fame derives from the ‘urban visionary’ marketplaces in the ’70s and ’80s was clearly a suburban realist.
Rouse regards Columbia as his greatest achievement, which is surprising since it is the very antithesis of what he is best known for-the big inner-city, festival marketplaces. The hallmark of Columbia has always been its openness to people of all ethnic and socio economic backgrounds, although – on the downside, – its low income goals have not been met.
The ‘very suburbanisation that Rouse had capitalised on in the 1950’s was the cause of his concern in the ’70’s. Worried that cities were being abandoned, he embarked on a new phase of urban development with the ‘festival market place.’ With a blend of shops, restaurants, kiosks, pushcarts, music and entertainment, Rouse hoped they would bring people, business and jobs back to the cities and, above all, provide the liveliness of the old-fashioned marketplace that had once been the heart of every urban area.
The impact of these ‘festival marketplaces’ which have brought Rouse lasting fame is easy to underestimate if one forgets the dismal city centre prospects before Rouse arrived with his big idea. At the time, neither conventional developers nor financial institutions were interested in mixed-use downtown projects until Faneuil Hall in Boston (1976) and then Harborplace in Baltimore (1980) turned the situation around.
Today Faneuil Hall attracts some 16 million visitors a year to the Boston city centre. The marketplace has been enlarged and has acted as a catalyst, stimulating new development and other property owners in the area to restore and revitalise their buildings. Baltimore used to be described as ‘the armpit of America.’ It had few hotels or fine restaurants and little life downtown — especially at night.
When Harborplace opened, 150,000 visitors came on the first day, 14 million that first year. Harborplace is credited with being the catalyst in a critical mass of attractions that transformed the city centre.
Today, Inner Harbor draws more than 25 million people annually — including 7,5 million tourists in a city where there was no tourist industry before.
In 1973, three young women approached Rouse for help in rehabilitating apartments for the poor. He turned them down, saying they needed a larger programme to make an impact. Eventually, their determination won him over and their project provided the inspiration for the Enterprise Foundation.
Since 1982, Rouse has devoted himself fully to the Foundation, which has worked with tenant activists, churches, block associations and other non-profit neighbourhood groups in over 30 cities to help build or renovate over 14,000 housing units.
Aware that it takes more than shelter to revitalise a neighbourhood, Enterprise employees have gone beyond simply financing and advising these grass-roots organisations.
Enterprise has linked up residents to support services — from home maintenance to chequebook balancing. Employees in Baltimore are involved in literacy and family counselling programmes, while another group within Rouse’s organisation, Enterprise Jobs, has provided 16,000 jobs for unemployed men and women in 12 cities and has established a mentoring programme, recruiting over 80 volunteers to work one-on-one with the people placed.