Columbia's late founder, James W. Rouse, was always keenly aware that urban design and planning was about far more than bricks and mortar. It shapes how people live and interact, he believed. Nowhere was this philosophy more evident than in his Sandtown project, where he set out in 1989 to prove that even the worst slums can be rehabilitated if approached in a thoughtful and committed way.
If Columbia was Rouse's pride, Sandtown was his passion.
On Tuesday, Sandtown, in west Baltimore, honored Rouse by unveiling a giant, color-splashed mural of him on the side of a building in the center of the neighborhood. A memorial garden and community center also were inaugurated.
Outgoing Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D), who was instrumental in helping Rouse design and fund his revitalization plan, issued a proclamation declaring Tuesday as Sandtown Day in Baltimore. Politicians and clergy from the neighborhood turned out. Children performed dances. Ribbons were cut. But in many ways, the event, as much as it was a tribute to Rouse's vision and ambition, was tinged with humility.
While there have been many triumphs along the way--crime is down, local schools are performing better--the neighborhood is a long way from where Rouse hoped it would be by 1999.
"It has taken longer than he hoped," said his widow, Patty Rouse, who attended Tuesday's ceremony.
The mural is just across the street from a Sandtown success story: a tract of 300 subsidized town houses, called the Nehemiah houses, built with a $4.9 million grant and owned by low-income families. It is where an abandoned factory once stood.
But just around the corner are the familiar, persistent signs of blight. Block after block of boarded-up, dilapidated row houses. Drug pushers on the corners. Drunken men stumbling along, seeking shade on a scorching day.
"Mr. Rouse always aimed for the sky. No mountain was too high. Things on the street move a little slower," said Emmanuel Price, 44, the chief executive officer of Community Building and Partnership, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Sandtown revitalization effort.
Indeed, Rouse aimed high.
"We've come to accept the litany of poverty as part of America--that there's nothing we can do about it because it's too big, too costly," Rouse said in an interview in 1993. "But by believing this condition can be corrected, it became our mission to prove it."
He hoped to have Sandtown well on the road to recovery in five years, and then to spread the effort to 20 other cities. Certainly such boldness had precedent with Rouse. He helped pioneer suburban shopping malls, built the thriving planned community of Columbia, and in the 1970s converted downtown eyesores into festival marketplaces such as Faneuil Hall in Boston and Baltimore's Inner Harbor, just 1 1/2 miles from Sandtown.
In 1981, Rouse cut his ties with the Rouse Co., which manages Columbia, and formed the Enterprise Foundation, dedicated to building and rehabilitating housing for low-income families. Sandtown was one of its biggest challenges.
In 1993 half of those living in Sandtown's 72-square blocks lived below the poverty line; 45 percent received public assistance; more than half the homes were in need of repair.
Rouse sought to approach each problem with a tailored solution: job training and placement to deal with unemployment, drug treatment to deal with addicts, for example.
His Enterprise Foundation serves as sort of the brain trust of the project while Price's organization runs day-to-day matters. Funding comes from the city of Baltimore, Enterprise and private donors.
The whole Sandtown effort, Patty Rouse remembers, was an attempt by Rouse to prove something to America.
"Things didn't have to be as bad as they were in the city," she said, standing under the three-story painting of her husband, clad in his trademark rimmed hat. "He felt he was going to show America that change was possible."