That idyllic period came to an abrupt end at age 16 when both of Rouse’s parents died within a few months of each other and the bank foreclosed on his family home. Rouse ended up in Baltimore, where, despite the Depression, he was lucky enough to attend night law school. During the day, he worked for a New Deal agency, the Federal Housing Administration.
There, Rouse learned all about a government program to guarantee long-term, self-amortizing mortgages for homebuyers. In fact, he gleaned enough to start his own business arranging loans as a mortgage banker. After World War II, as thousands of soldiers returned and started families, Rouse was there, making it possible for them to buy small homes in the growing suburbs. James W. Rouse & Company became the largest mortgage banking operation in Maryland, and soon expanded across the country.
One day in the fall of 1953, Rouse was discussing this business with another young executive. “I went in and sat down and Jim put his feet up on his desk, which was his standard procedure,” recalls Harvey Moger. Just as he never dressed well, Rouse was perpetually forgetting about time, and it was not long before a secretary came in to remind him of another appointment. “Okay, okay, fine, yes, I’ll do that,” Rouse said before settling back into his bull session. Soon, the secretary returned again, this time more flustered. “I’m sorry, Mr. Rouse, but you must leave now,” she demanded, and then added for the guest’s benefit, “Excuse me, Mr. Moger, but President Eisenhower has an appointment with Mr. Rouse in 50 minutes.”
When Rouse finally did get to Washington, he learned that Eisenhower wanted him to serve on an advisory committee to outline the role of the federal government in urban redevelopment. Rouse headed up a subcommittee that recommended a program of “urban renewal” (a term that had been suggested earlier, but only became part of the popular lexicon with the recommendations of Rouse’s subcommittee) through which the federal government could provide funds to municipalities to tear down outdated sections of their cities and replace them with new development. This suggestion became the most important part of the Housing Act passed in the following year, and Rouse became a national spokesperson for urban renewal. It was a controversial, but long-lived program, one which re-shaped many American cities.
One of the things that Rouse liked most about urban renewal was its emphasis on careful planning, rather than haphazard growth. According to him, “Such planning, embracing the entire metropolitan area, will attempt to fit the right uses in the right places by providing adequately for them where they ought to be.” This was easier to do in the compact center of the city, where areas to be rebuilt could be clearly defined. It was less easy to accomplish in the rapidly growing suburbs.
The emergence of suburban sprawl was especially apparent when it came to retail. Shopping in the suburbs largely happened along highway strips. People would drive between stores, which shouted their presence with huge neon signs. An alternative arrived when the Baltimore News-Post stuffed a special section into the papers it delivered Tuesday morning, September 30, 1958. “The only shopping center in the East under one roof, Harundale Mall, with 45 stores in tropical surroundings, will open tomorrow at 9 a.m.” Jim Rouse had decided that there was a better way to organize suburban commerce. Using his mortgage banking contacts, he organized financial backers and decided to build a prototype himself. Instead of each shop existing separately in a stand-alone building, Rouse grouped them together in one structure. Instead of each facing a parking lot, he made the stores face inward to a corridor, which he referred to as a “shopping street,” and filled with indoor gardens and kiosks.