The Origins and History of PN

By Chester Hartman

In 1970, I moved from the East coast (Cambridge) to the West coast (San Francisco). While it was, for me, a very satisfying change of venue, as a lifelong Easterner (seventeen years in the Bronx, followed by seventeen years in the Boston area), out there I increasingly felt somewhat removed from things, in particular from my planning colleagues. At the time, I was on the staff of the National Housing Law Project (then part of the Univ. of California Berkeley Law School, later to go independent), dealing with a range of housing justice issues. So in 1974 I contacted about three dozen planner friends to raise the idea of some kind of communications network among progressive planners. In the nineteen sixties, we had Planners for Equal Opportunity (PEO), the rewarding and effective collection of such folks that Walter Thabit, one of the original advocate planners working in the Cooper Square neighborhood of New York, put together. PEO had significant positive impact on the planning profession and programs such as urban renewal and public housing, raising in particular issues of race and class justice. But as the sixties faded into the seventies, PEO faded.

The response I got was positive. So I applied for a small grant to “Ping” Ferry and Carol Bernstein, those wonderful funders of social change groups and got one of their famous responses: a check ($2500 – more would come later) with an encouraging note on the stub – no hassle, no waiting. In August 1975. I sent out the first mailing, as I recall to about 300 persons – names provided by the friends I first queried, plus some names from Walter’s list. And that is how it all began.

I had occasional local help with mailings and maintaining the mailing list. But it was essentially a one-man operation, taking up maybe six to eight hours a month — most of it laboriously typing the various submissions people sent in. The bimonthly newsletter was largely a compendium of items “members” wanted others to know about – their work, problems, readings, etc. All costs – basically, printing and mailing – were covered by voluntary contributions by those receiving the newsletter. And we kept growing as more and more people learned about PN or were referred to us by “members.” I use that word in quotes because for the first few years there was nothing resembling an organization, just the newsletter, the sense of community it provided and in localities such as Boston, New York, SF, LA and Chicago, where there were concentrations of PNers, occasional local activities, such as forums, films, speakers, social events, technical assistance. We also published an occasional roster with short bio sketches, facilitating one-on-one contacts.

The first move toward making PN an organizaton was the 1979 Cornell conference on progressive planning, the papers for which were published as Urban and Regional Planning in an Age of Austerity, edited by Pierre Clavel, John Forester and William Goldsmith (Pergamon, 1980) – still a useful and relevant collection. Then, in 1981, came PN’s first national conference, at the 4-H Center outside Washington, DC, attended by about 150 people. There we adopted a formal Statement of Principles, intended not as a blood oath but as an understanding of general political agreement among the membership. We set up several working groups, one of which resulted in Critical Perspectives on Housing (Temple Univ. Press, 1986), the progressive housing reader I co-edited with PNers Rachel Bratt and Ann Meyerson.

In 1995, a few years after I relocated from San Francisco to DC (where I finally brought in some part-time paid assistance), I turned the whole operation over to Tom Angotti and colleagues at Pratt. It was a very healthy development: a new, elected Steering Committee; lots of new energy and an institutional base (Hunter now included) with the resources that brings; a longer, weightier, more substantive, less “chatty” publication, now transformed into this magazine; and all those terrific annual conferences.

Chester Hartman is Executive Director of the Poverty Race Research Action Council ( He worked at the Institute for Policy Studies, taught at the University of North Carolina Planning Department, and has authored many publications. A collection of 32 of his past essays, with an autobiography/social history and a foreword by Jane Jacobs, entitled Between Eminence and Notoriety: Four Decades of Radical Urban Planning (Rutgers, Center for Urban Policy Research) is due out in February 2002. An updated edition of his book, City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco, will be published by University of California Press in May 2002. A new housing reader that he has co-edited with Rachel Bratt and Michael Stone will be published by Temple University Press in late 2002.