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Jim Rouse’s vision

Fraser Smith Big

People speak of vision as if somehow we could all have it. We can’t. You have it or you don’t.

Jim Rouse, the founder of Columbia 50 years ago, had it and then some.

People are remembering him these days with a sense of wonder. He was a phenomenon, doubly blessed.

He had “a superb ability to persuade and convince,” writes Scott Ditch, a former Rouse spokesman

Rouse succeeded because he had mastered the language and because he spoke with a spiritual commitment.

He wanted “the best that might be.” Nothing less. He became an articulate and persuasive advocate. These were his greatest gifts, Ditch wrote.

A team or others who knew Rouse well have produced “A (glossy) Fifty-year Retrospective on the Making of a Model City,” edited by Robert Tennenbaum.

Rouse’s ideas for achieving the best possible civilization were “prescient” and — some might say — grandiose. But Think Big might have been his  watchword. As they say in sports, “It’s not bragging if you can do it.”

The persuasion part was as big as anything in the Rouse magic.

“Without a constituency, without the building of awareness and then of broad-based support, vision remains nothing more than dreams,” Ditch wrote.

Well, what did I expect Ditch to say? He was a company man. But, I’ve read a lot of PR descriptions of politicians and businessmen and others over many years as a reporter and commentator. Rouse was the real deal.

Personally available

You could look it up. He was consistent and dogged in addition to his other attributes.

While the city of Baltimore debated the merits of its Inner Harbor development plan, Rouse came into The Sun newsroom (where I worked then) to make his pitch.

“I know you want to get this right,” he said, “to understand what we’re doing so I’m here to answer any of your questions.” I did want to understand. I did want to get it right. But I never, if ever, had a visionary developer or any other developer make himself personally available.

This project, he said, was all about the rebirth of Baltimore. It might be the forlorn city’s last chance to recover from the death of steel. It would remake downtown. It would become a tourist destination, It would create jobs, pump up the tax base and build pride.

Of course, what he said was self-serving. He was building the new attraction. But Rouse was following through on a decades-old plan. In 1964, he had urged then Mayor Theodore McKeldin to have a sharper focus on the harbor,

“We have in our hands the opportunity to make our city — in our generation — the most livable, the most beautiful, and the most effective city in America,” he wrote in a memo reprinted in a book of Rouse speeches.

Mayor William Donald Schafer, his partner in the new waterside attraction, was as good a salesman as Rouse in a very different, madcap sort of way.

Even then, no doubt, Rouse had Columbia, his model city, in mind. He began to aggregate land. He began, no doubt, to find other true believers.

His goal was true community.

“An inspired and concerned society will dignify man,” he said in an address at the University of California, Berkeley, “will find ways to develop his talents, will put the fruits of his labor and intellect to effective use, will struggle for brotherhood and for the elimination of bigotry and intolerance, will seek the truth and communicate it, will respect differences among men.”

All of this would be part of his vision for Columbia.

Janitor and CEO

Vernon Gray, a legislator, academic and former administrator of the Howard County Office of Human Rights, says, “Jim Rouse built Columbia with the vision of a planned community where descendants of slaves and descendants of Puritans could co-exist as equals.”

Rouse wanted a community where the janitor and the CEO could live comfortably.

“Heard it all the time,” says Lee Rosenberg who built some of the first houses in Rouse’s Columbia.

He also wanted plenty of green and open space.

“Jim says you should do some more landscaping,” one of the Rouse’s men told him. He tended to communicate via trusted employees. Just keep doing what you are doing,” he said.

But there was plenty of face time as well.

“I probably met with him 50 times over the years. I always walked away inspired,” Rosenberg said.

A pallbearer at Rouse’s funeral, he said, “I felt him talking to me.”

Former Howard County Executive Liz Bobo had similar recollections.

She feels the Rouse directive as well. She worries that financial considerations will be allowed to ignore Rouse’s janitor-CEO idea.

At this 50th anniversary moment, she said, the founder’s words must not be forgotten.

“What ought to be can be if we have the will to make it so.”

C. Fraser Smith is a writer in Baltimore. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. He can be reached at

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