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The vision that changed a city’s psyche

On July 2, 1980, Mayor William Donald Schaefer and James W. Rouse, the tribune of America’s inner city renaissance, stood on a reviewing stand as Baltimore’s Harborplace was inaugurated.

Acclaimed local boys making good, the world was their oyster. That both of them had sprung from the same benighted Maryland soil, that both had mounted the national stage at the same time was as unlikely as the waterfront shopping mecca they were christening.

Cannons boomed, trumpets blared, anthems soared and bagpipes skirled. The horizon was filling with new projects. “One thing led to another and another until anything and everything is possible in the upward surge of Baltimore renewal,” the newspaper said.

Back in City Hall after this day of adulation, much of which was orchestrated by the mayor’s staff, Schaefer — as always — grew restive. Praise made him anxious.

Nevertheless, his close aide Lainey Lebow (later Lainey Lebow Sachs) tried to keep the good mood going.

“You must feel fantastic,” she said.

He didn’t. He cocked his head with a hard, disapproving scowl

“That’s done,” he said. “It’s old news. Every city will have something just like it. What’re we going to do now?”

Signature triumph

Schaefer was not entirely correct about what every other city would do. Not every city pulled off the transformation that Harborplace epitomized.

He laughed at the recollection of his exchange with Lebow-Sachs during a conversation last week at his apartment in the Charlestown retirement community. He said he didn’t have time then to feel fantastic. As long as he was mayor, he never would

“If you’re satisfied, you might as well give up. Throw in the sponge. Quit. Get out. If you didn’t have the next project in mind, you were done,” he said last week, explaining what drove him.

As for Harborplace, “We were in the right place at the right time,” Schaefer recalled. “The city was ready. The people were ready. They wanted to be successful.”

The Inner Harbor became the symbol of the city’s recovery, proof of the dreamer’s faith.

Schaefer’s signature triumph opened along a rotting expanse of harbor that essentially walled people away from what Rouse had foreseen as a festival of city life — a place of both commerce and enjoyment — the latter mostly, as it turns out. One of the Rouse men, Tony Hawkins, said businesses like Harborplace are murderously hard to make profitable.

Waterfront pavilions like this were more about the city and finding its fading pulse than about making money. Rouse was a businessman, but he was also a visionary. Make no small plan, he had urged. Bringing Baltimore back to life fit perfectly with this mantra.

Creative combustion

The unlikely Schaefer-Rouse synergy seems a testimony to Rouse’s faith in cities. This one, Baltimore, had produced both men and thrown them together. Rouse had been as surprised as anyone. He had mourned Schaefer’s election at first, not recognizing the power of his quirkily disciplined style. He later called his partner the most talented mayor in America.

Schaefer and Rouse became a creatively combustible team. Schaefer loved ideas and Rouse was the ultimate idea man.

“He had a vision. And he fulfilled his vision,” the 87-year-old former mayor, two-term governor and two-term comptroller said.

Schaefer, meanwhile, had acquired the political capital you needed for such a project. People had to support you and they supported Schaefer.

You could have called it silly-hat leadership. He didn’t mind being laughed at. He thought people would get it, enjoy it and join him in everything he was doing. New ideas were a kind of fuel for his leadership engine.

In some ways, critics have uncharitably suggested, Schaefer sucked all the motivation from the atmosphere. As if the city had any alternative. He had been, of course, a dominating presence. Others stood back. And then he was gone.

Those who followed him have been reluctant or unwilling to try anything similar to his leadership style. Rightly so. It couldn’t have been duplicated. He was a unique leader, a man so fully identified with his city that any effort to sustain his approach would have been laughable.

The Schaefer-Rouse chemistry faded with the last notes of those mournful bagpipes. The Inner Harbor and Harborplace have endured for 30 years. They will inevitably need refurbishing and reinventing.

But Schaefer and Rouse gave us a jewel of a foundation.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. He is the author of “William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography.” The Johns Hopkins University Press. His column runs Fridays in The Daily Record. His email is fsmith@aol.com.