The first residents moved to Columbia in 1967 and the city grew rapidly. Despite an economic downtown in the 1970s that slowed development and brought the whole project into question, Columbia not only survived, but thrived in the 1980s and beyond.
In the 1970s, Rouse’s sights turned to old cities and revitalization. He began making trips to visit a crumbling 19th-century warehouse in Boston. The place held a few wholesale merchants, but many more rats. The basement routinely flooded with seepage from the nearby harbor. It was, however, right behind historic Faneuil Hall, and just a block from the civic center. “Think of what this could be!”, Rouse told his skeptical employees.
He had seen a vision in some drawings that a local architect, Benjamin Thompson, had shown him. Those drawings depicted the warehouse refurbished as a retail marketplace, with colorful stalls selling jewelry, flowers and fresh fruit. It would be like an Old World bazaar, said Thompson. “The two of them took off into fantasy land,” one Rouse employee later said about this encounter between real estate developer and architect. “They’d each met their match, and Jim Rouse got so stirred up and so excited, so intrigued ... and that was the beginning of that romance.”
“I wouldn’t put a penny downtown,” countered Edward DeBartolo, one of the most successful suburban mall developers in 1973. “It’s bad. Face it, why should people come in? They don’t want the hassle, they don’t want the danger ... No individual or corporate set-up can make a dent on those problems. So what do you do? Exactly what I’m doing, stay out in the country, that is the new downtown.” Rouse ignored this advice, and convinced Boston’s mayor and city council to do the same. They refurbished the old building, and Rouse’s leasing agents traveled the back roads of New England to find off-beat merchants and restaurateurs that would take a chance on a venue in the downtrodden inner city.
Even Rouse’s supporters were cautious in their enthusiasm, though. The evening before the project was set to open in August 1976, Mayor Kevin White took Rouse aside at a dinner, and warned, “It will take time for Boston to adopt it, but in the long run it will become part of the city.” Having poured much of his time into the project, Rouse was not reassured. “Kevin, if you’re right, we’re dead. This has got to really go tomorrow.”
Fortunately for Rouse – and Boston – it did go. With many out of the city on vacation, and Boston’s large student population not yet returned, an amazing 100,000 people appeared for the opening of Faneuil Hall Marketplace. The crowds returned day after day. In the first year, more people visited the marketplace than Disneyland. “I felt good to be there,” one reporter explained, “and everybody around me appeared to feel the same way. People mingling with people, comfortable, unafraid, having fun. This is not the way American cities are supposed to be.”
Rouse had found a winning recipe. It turned out that if a city put interesting shops in a colorful setting, and threw in restaurants, street performers, and entertainment for good measure, it could create an urban mecca. The middle class would leave the suburbs and venture downtown.
In fact, the impact of this project, which Rouse called a “festival marketplace,” would go much further than Boston. Mixed in with the crowds who visited the marketplace everyday were planners and architects from around the globe. “It’s like Star Wars,” the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority observed. “Everybody wants to copy it. Cities all over the world want to replicate Faneuil Hall Marketplace.” Many places did copy it in one form or another. Rouse himself went on to build Harborplace in Baltimore, making the city a model for how to turn a run-down harbor into a public gathering place. His company also built festival marketplaces in New York, Miami, and Seattle.