Because of the sea change in urban fortune that his developments created, Rouse ended up on the cover of Time magazine in 1981, his picture accompanied by the caption “Cities are Fun!” (View cover of Time at http://www.time.com/time/magazine) Rouse correctly predicted that this was the beginning of something new. “The American dream for millions and millions of young Americans is no longer a quarter-acre lot and a picket fence. It’s rehabilitating a house in the central city, or buying one that’s rehabilitated, typically [by] two people who are working. ... This kind of household doesn’t find its life best lived out in the suburbs, but in the center of the city with its convenience and vitality.” As the advertisements for urban condos and lofts all over the country testify, the back-to-the-city movement continues today.
Jim Rouse did have one other thing that he wanted to undertake. Places like Faneuil Hall made downtown popular again for the middle-class, but the inner city also held people whose needs were much more basic, and desperate. In 1979 Rouse retired from his for-profit development company and started the Enterprise Foundation (since renamed to Enterprise Community Partners) to promote the creation of housing for the poor. A successful entrepreneur, Rouse structured the mission of his foundation in a way that appealed to corporate donors. “We can, we really can, find new answers,” he promised, “new and better ways for solving stubborn old problems if we put the kind of creativity, enterprise, and resources to work on the opportunity as we do in developing new products, new systems in our business world.”
The Enterprise Foundation helped knit together a network of smaller local groups that were building affordable housing. It made their efforts more informed and more professional. Rouse and Enterprise also lobbied the federal government for new initiatives in the same vein. As he had with urban renewal, Rouse became the driving force behind a far-reaching government program, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. The credit encouraged private investors to back the development of housing for the poor, and proved incredibly successful, doing far more to provide affordable shelter than other programs like public housing ever did. The Enterprise Foundation itself became one of only three organizations in its field to operate on a national level. In 1995, the last year that Rouse was able to visit the Enterprise offices on a regular basis, the group financed almost 9,000 homes, and provided support for 700 community groups in 153 cities.
As Rouse entered his 80s, he was diagnosed with both cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease. He continued working, though. On April 9, 1996, he was scheduled to have a meeting to discuss progress on an Enterprise initiative in Baltimore. That morning, though, Rouse was found in his kitchen, inanimate in his wheelchair. He had passed away just a few feet shy of the desk where he was always working.
What Rouse built, others have copied over and over again. Although he died more than a decade ago, we still live, work and play in his legacy. Not everyone likes shopping malls, and “sprawl” is the best way to describe the form of America’s urban areas. Developers themselves have a reputation for greed and corruption. Yet Rouse’s story was not one of power plays, deception or ill-gotten gains. It was not the story of faceless capitalist forces building an alien landscape. Rather, it was the story of a man who honestly believed that the plans that he carried under his arm would create “the next America.” By building things that had never been built before, he did create that future, and for better or worse, today we live with the result.
Joshua Olsen is the author of Better Places, Better Lives: A Biography of James
Rouse (Urban Land Institute, 2004, ISBN: 0-87420-919-6), which is available on at
bookstores, Amazon.com, www.bookstore.uli.org or here.