Three Conversations: Perspectives on the City Planning Department

ALEXANDRA THOMPSON (YSOA M.ARCH I 2018)

MARGARET MARSH (YSOA M.ARCH I 2018)

The City Planning Department at Yale offered a graduate degree until it was abruptly dissolved in 1969 following a period of tense student activism and strain with the university administration. Perspecta 29 has in-depth coverage of the department’s final years, but we were interested in hearing from students and faculty who experienced the department firsthand. In thinking about the future of urbanism at Yale, we wanted to take this opportunity to look back on the activities of the City Planning Department, in order to gain insight for the present. We heard from Harry Wexler, the interim director during the break up of the program, Tom Carey, an architecture graduate student at the time, and Jay Gitlin, an undergraduate planning major who now teaches in the University’s history department:  

 

HARRY WEXLER (City Planning Department Professor 1963-68, Chairman 1968-69)

MM: We are trying to stitch together what what going on at the time of the Planning Department’s disbanding – including the reasons why it was disbanded, so anything you can tell us about the Department and its disbanding would be helpful.

HW:  My first interaction with the Yale Planning Department was when I was a student at Yale Law School and took City Planning 10a with Chris Tunnard, a landscape architect by training.  A few years later, I was asked to be interim administrator of the department by then current director Arthur Rowe, a trained planner who had been asked to come on as the urban planner for Calcutta. I had just graduated from the law school but I had also worked within the city’s Planning Department. I agreed to act as an interim administrator in Art’s absence, which was to be two years.  Ten years later I was still there.  The other faculty included a young economics professor named Ralph Tucker, an architect named Pat Girders, and a fellow named Lou DeLuca, who was assistant to the Dean of the school.  It was a strange amalgam and poorly funded.

AT: Can you tell us about the ethos of the Yale City Planning Department while you were there?

HW: This was a period in which advocacy planning was being endorsed in response to urban renewal. Advocacy planning is the recognition of conflicting interests in a neighborhood.  Advocacy planning suggested that this conflict could be put to good use, provided the neighborhood had good representation.  These neighborhoods lacked that, because they were low-income areas of New Haven. We decided to add an advocacy component to the curriculum of the Planning Department, in which students would go out to help organize a group to advocate for the neighborhood’s interests.  I thought it was going well, as did most of the department, until one of the students, who was one of the only Black students in the program, met with me and told me that the residents tended to look to him, the one minority student, as the person they could best respond to and expect to represent them. I was very angry with myself for putting him in that position.  What do you do about that?  Do you give up the program fieldwork?  Or do you somehow get additional minority students in the program?  We decided to increase minority representation in the incoming class.  The University communicated that they were against this but did not give us a reason why, other than the sense that they assumed that the students would require more loans than the University wanted to allocate.  The question now was whether we should send the letters of admission out anyway.  We were reckless, and sent the letters out, admitting the students. The powers that be responded by terminating the program.

AT: And all the students who were accepted?

HW: The students came and were absorbed into the architecture school.  The students felt rightfully neglected and one of them said to me ‘Harry, we’re not here for the curriculum now, we’re here for the credential.’  Most of them joined together and created what they called The Black Workshop, wherein they would run their own program, with the idea being that they knew best what they needed and how to get it.  There were people in the architecture program–the junior faculty especially–who got excited at first by the thought of minority students coming into the department.  They thought it was a very good thing, which it could have (should have) been.  But what happened was that these students had come to the University without anybody really having given thought to why they were there.  The faculty wasn’t prepared for a group of bright, young Black architects telling them that they didn’t understand what minority planing was all about.  It was a very sad time. There was a fire in the A&A Building that you’re probably familiar with.  Everyone thought it was the response of the recruited Planning students to their differences with the administration – and that wasn’t true.  If there was some relationship, then nobody could find or prove it. But there was a general belief that there were revolutionaries loose in the City Planning program.  

 

TOM CAREY (M.Arch, Yale School of Architecture 1970)

MM:  Maybe before we touch on the Planning Department at Yale, you can tell us a bit about your time at Yale and your background.

TC: The thing that is really important is that after 1st year I went down to Appalachia and decided to stay for the next year.  That made a huge impression on me and it probably informed the work I have done since then.  There were so many things going on in the country at the same time.  

My friends who were working in Appalachia with me (Bob Swenson and Steve Edwins) were the ones who went back to Yale to propose Yale’s involvement in what became the First Yale Building Project. I remained in Kentucky and acted as a liaison between the First Year class and the community. Charles Moore was very open to the ideait accorded with his views of user inputand took a risk in initiating the project. It wouldn’t have happened without him.

AT: Was the housing project the main focus of your time in Appalachia?

TC:  A lot of what drove me to activism were my experiences down there. We formed Group Nine during that year and operated the next summer (’67) out of an abandoned storefront in Eastern Kentucky. We proposed prototype housing – some of which got built. We also organized against the Army Corps of Engineers who were displacing people (and paying them little or nothing for their homes) for a huge dam project. We were unsuccessful in stopping it, but hopefully helped a few get a fairer deal. We also worked to organize self-help housing groups where a group of six families would build each other’s houses in turn. I came back to New Haven after that year and then I was in the Architecture program.  

AT: What was student activism like when you returned to Yale?

TC: As a full time student, it was hard to fit in a lot of full time activism. It was easier in Kentucky. But upon return to New Haven I was certainly looking for ways to keep involved. Topper Carew’s course was the vehicle for many of us who felt the need to change. He had suggested we deal with the failings of the profession. I wrote a statement and led a walkout (I felt having written it, I should stand up and read it). At the meeting after the walkout, we (activist students and professionals especially from Columbia and MIT as well as Yale) wrote and signed a manifesto defining our opposition to many of the current practices of architecture. This led to the formation of a group called the Architect’s Resistance. Henry Stone was instrumental in this along with a number of Columbia and MIT students. We issued a number of position papers on architecture and racism, architecture and the nuclear arms race and designing with the users as our real clients.

MM: We understand that the City Planning students were also very active. Was there overlap?

TC: I stress that I wasn’t part of the Planning Department and was not involved in their community/advocacy planning, although I certainly agreed with what they were doing. We knew each other, but people tended to live in their own worlds. I did get involved with a Ford funded organization set up by Mike Deasy and others called the Student Community Housing Corporation, whose goal was to purchase and renovate structures for subsidized housing among other things. The planning department was actually out in the community a lot, which was what led to conflict with the administration and the disbanding of the department. As the department got involved in advocacy planning, in the context of major urban riots, they felt that there was really a need to get out of the ivory tower and into the community.  They wanted to get more black students involved in the Department.  So they brought that to the administration and the administration said well, ‘one more’, and the students said, ‘well that’s not good enough.’  

MM: Did students go to town meetings or connect with community leaders?

TC: I think the Planning Department was involved in that way here and it made the University very uncomfortable.  That was not the University model–theirs was that they were supposed to be objective professionals and not really involved in the realities of the community.

AT: In terms of personal experience, were there any instances where a project you were a part of was highly effective.  

TC: I don’t think any of it was effective enough.  We were only able to provide band-aid solutions to much more holistic problems.  All you’re doing is addressing immediate needs, so it can be frustrating in that way.  It was also difficult that the cities were so tense at that time.  The summer of ‘68 after King’s assassination, there were a hundred cities that riotedthey were sending in troops and lots of people were getting killed.  It wasn’t just the systemic problems then, it was also the tenor of the times. It’s coming back too, it’s building up.  Communication gets difficult, people are tense, on-edge, suspicious, which makes it difficult to intervene.  With planning, in a way, you’re messing with people’s lives. It certainly doesn’t look hopeful with someone like Trump in charge who seems incapable of even seeing his own reality let alone that of vast sections of both urban and rural America and the world who’ve gotten left behind.  

 

JAY GITLIN (Yale College City Planning Major, B.A. History 1971)

JG: The City Planning undergraduate major was taught under the School of Architecture. Interestingly, it was done originally  in cooperation with an old bureau of Highway Traffic (started by William Phelps Eno).

AT: Could you tell us about the political climate at the time?

JG: Graduate students cared about the politics of architecture and planning. We undergrads, for the most part, were more agnostic.

MM: It’s interesting how different the undergraduate experience sounds in comparison to the graduate student experience at that time. Could you tell us what you observed on the graduate student side of things?

JG: My perception was that the University felt that too many of the A&A students were kind of radicalized. One of the reasons they terminated the program was because it was troublesome. They didn’t need it as an irritant and it could lead the school away from its educational mission. But that’s my undergraduate perception.

MM: It’s been explained to us that from the beginning the program was always underfunded.

JG: Yale never seemed to care for City Planning. The department certainly seemed under-developed.

AT: With you having grown up outside of New York, I would like to know what you thought of New Haven as a city? It’s such a divided city and urban renewal, in my mind, made that division irreversible.

JG: When I got here, New Haven felt more urban to me then than it does now. Urban Renewal had many effects. When I was a sophomore, one of my first papers for Tunnard’s City Planning 10a was to look at Oak Street. It was the old ethnic Jewish part of town. I would walk around and there were big store signs [in Yiddish] on the ground. It was also Italian and Black, so it was a mixed neighborhood.

MM: Do you think other Yale undergraduates saw these kinds of neighborhoods?

JG: Not much, no. I was more geared that way because of my interest in urbanism, and from playing music gigs in various city and suburban parts of the metropolitan area.