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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 540

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This is the grave of James Rouse.

Born in 1914 in Easton, Maryland, Rouse grew up in a well-off family, though when he was 16, his mother and father both died of different medical aliments. The money was gone too, but he had older siblings. His sister, who had married a naval officer stationed in Hawaii, took custody and he was then able to move there and attend the University of Hawaii. But he was homesick and dropped out. Still, he found scholarship money and transferred to the University of Virginia. He never graduated. He dropped out again, needing money, and moved to Baltimore, where he went to work. Somehow, in 1935, he managed to get the attetnion of Millard Tydings, the senator from Maryland, after he wrote him a letter asking for a job. I’m going to guess there was some old connection between the families. Tydings took pity on the boy from the fallen family and found him work with the Federal Housing Administration as a clerk working on FHA loans. And the career of one of the most important people in mid-century American urbanism was born.

Even though he did not have an undergraduate degree, Rouse got a law degree from the University of Maryland, taking night classes. He did so by borrowing money from his boss, the urban renewal proponent Guy Hollyday. Rouse stayed at the FHA for a couple of years and then started a mortgage banking firm with a partner that specialized in FHA loans. Rouse had to serve in the Army Air Force after World War II but came back and kept the business going. He started getting very rich. Like his old mentor Hollyday, he became a big advocate of urban renewal, that disastrous policy that destroyed inner cities around the nation. Now, it’s not that there wasn’t a need for new housing and a lot of cleaning up of our urban cores by the end of World War II. The housing crisis was real enough and the state of the cities was pretty bad. But tearing everything down, paving it over, and putting up a few gigantic office buildings that people would commute to by car from the burbs was the greatest urbanism nightmare in American history, utterly caving in the cities, both in terms of their style and livability and in terms of leaving them tax-starved municipalities with predominantly minority populations who could neither get jobs in those modernist office buildings nor move to the suburbs. Rouse had a large part to play in what happened to our cities in these years.

Rouse continued with his FHA work, but also became the leading proponent of urban renewal in Baltimore. He founded the Citizens Planning and Housing Association there all the way back in 1941, which pushed through the Baltimore Plan to tear down all the old housing and replace it. As anyone who knows Baltimore can say with surety, nothing bad ever happened in that city ever again. It was after the war that the Baltimore Plan really got underway, removing 27 square blocks of housing. Rouse became the leading spokesman for the program. Although nominally a Democrat, he was moving toward being a liberal Republican. So he was a board member in Democrats for Eisenhower in 1952 and that of course got the general’s attention. In 1953, Eisenhower tapped Rouse to help him design his housing policy, which became the Housing Act of 1954, more or less based on the Baltimore Plan, but on a national scale.

So if you were going to destroy the cities and incentivize white people to the suburbs through redlining, which came out of the FHA, where would people shop? They wouldn’t want to go into the inner city, with its scary people. Rouse therefore was a huge proponent of the shopping mall. He built of Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie, Maryland in 1958, the second modern shopping mall east of the Mississippi and the first of these malls to be built by a real estate developer. This was also the first air conditioned mall in the U.S. It was the prototype for the growth of malls around the country over the next thirty years. It was considered such a big deal that John F. Kennedy, then an ambitious senator, showed up for the opening. No one did more to create postwar American urbanism than Rouse and given that nearly everything he created has been tremendously damaging to our urban landscape, he is an understated villain in our history.

By the 60s, Rouse was working in planned suburban communities. In 1961, he created the Village of Cross Keys within Baltimore, which to his credit was not explicitly all-white, though it certainly wasn’t built for working class people. It’s basically a development of high-end condos. He then created Columbia, Maryland, a commuter community between Baltimore and Washington. Like so many urbanists in American history, Rouse hated cities. This is the biggest paradox of American urban development. He wanted to bring the small town–specifically his home of Easton–to the modern suburbs. He wanted a series of small towns of maybe 10-12,000 people based on the old village model that would combine to make a larger city. It took off, though a lot of the people involved, including a lovely man named Spiro Agnew, found all sorts of way to personally profit from land deals. Agnew was indicted, as was Maryland governor Marvin Mandel. Rouse was charged with campaign finance charges for donating over the limits to Mandel, but the charges were dropped.

In the 1970s, Rouse turned toward redeveloping markets in urban cores, most notably Boston’s Faneuil Hall and when that was successful New York’s South Street Seaport, Baltimore’s Harborplace, Portland’s Pioneer Place, and other urban markets. While some described them as fake urbanism, not without some legitimate points, given all Rouse and others had done to destroy the cities, this was at least an attempt to put some of the pieces back together again.

Rouse retired from actively running his company in 1979 and worked on low-cost housing issues, starting the Enterprise Foundation to build low-income housing and provide grants for the urban poor. It was all full of free enterprise and self-help nonsense rhetoric, but probably did more good than bad. Interestingly, he is the grandfather of the actor Edward Norton, through his oldest daughter. Moreover, his son was very strongly anti-Vietnam and convinced his father of the unjustness of the conflict, leading Rouse to buy full-page ads protesting the war in the Washington Post and New York Times in 1970, infuriating Richard Nixon.

Rouse had a pretty rough end, dying of ALS in 1996. Just before his death, Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which I’m not so sure he deserved given his role in urban destruction, sprawl, and creating the landscape of car culture that makes this nation dealing with climate change effectively almost impossible. But he had powerful friends in both parties.

James Rouse is buried in Columbia Memorial Park, Columbia, Maryland. Given the cheapness of the post-war landscape Rouse built, it’s somewhat fitting that he is buried in a poorly designed cemetery prone to flooding, as you can see from all the mud that made his grave hard to find.

This grave visit happened thanks to LGM reader contributions. If you would like this series to visit other American urbanists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jane Jacobs is in Almedia, Pennsylvania and William Levitt is in East Farmingdale, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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