By Joshua Olsen
If you take a straight path from the countryside to the downtown in any American city, you will likely pass by a number of different sights. In the suburbs, there are single-family homes on separate lots. Some of these may be carefully grouped together around parks and schools. Between the homes and a major highway, you will likely see a shopping mall, identifiable by its parking lots and the fact that most of its stores face inward.
As you get closer to downtown itself, you may see signs of decay – abandoned houses and deteriorating infrastructure. But here and there appears a renovated house with a sign saying that a community group has been at work, or maybe even whole blocks are being renovated. In downtown itself, there is evidence of past redevelopment, most of it consisting of large inter-connected buildings and plazas with 1960s and 1970s architecture. In the center of downtown, there is probably a relatively new place devoted to retail and restaurants, perhaps something facing the water and providing a venue for street performers and pushcarts.
On such a trip, we may marvel at the complexity of the American city, and yet much of what we passed can be traced back to the influence of a single man. This man was James W. Rouse (1914-1996), and more than any other individual, he is the story of the shaping of the American landscape during the second half of the 20th century.
“I’m not an architect. I keep being accused of that. I’m a developer. And I’m a lawyer who never practiced law.” This is how Jim Rouse attempted to explain his career. He did not draw the blueprints for what he built himself, but he did tell the many architects and planners that he employed what should go into their drawings. As a real estate developer, Rouse bought land and assembled buildings on it. Those creations were things that few Americans had seen before: shopping malls, planned communities, downtown “festival marketplaces.” Politicians also asked Rouse what they should do in their cities, and Rouse suggested urban renewal, even helping pen the legislation that would make that phrase part of every urban planner’s vocabulary. In his retirement, Rouse started a foundation, now one of the country’s largest, to create affordable housing for the poor.
Jim Rouse wore rumpled suits and drove a station wagon for most of his life. He made money from his buildings, but this was never really his primary motivation. He was more of a classic American entrepreneur than a titan, creating new things just because he thought they were better.
City builder Jim Rouse did not grow up in the city, but instead in a small town not far from the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. From his birth in 1914 until the Depression of the 1930s, he enjoyed an idyllic childhood navigating a “quite tippy” sailboat along the Bay and playing baseball and tag. For the rest of his life, Rouse talked about his small town upbringing, and much of what he built can be seen as an attempt to recapture the sense of community that he experienced as a youth.