Papers from the “Progressive Cities and Neighborhood Planning” Collection at Cornell: A Collection and a Class

By Pierre Clavel

This collection of articles from Cornell students were stimulated by resources in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC), Cornell University Library. In 2005, the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell offered a short (six weeks) course on “ Progressive Cities and Neighborhood Planning” in the guise of a class on archival research. These papers reflect some of the work done in that course. The course itself was interesting, but more interesting is the story behind the collection and how it has increasingly related to progressive planners’ efforts to teach and promote neighborhood planning. In addition, the collection has helped to bolster the effort to define, and even develop, the idea of a city that supports community development.

The history begins with an archivist, Herbert Finch, who in the 1960s joined forces with faculty in the Department of City and Regional Planning to build a collection of the papers of planners. The faculty would point Finch toward “important” professionals and supporters of the field, and he courted them energetically, seeking bequests of papers and books. The university already had some papers at that point—from John Nolen, for example, and Charles Mulford Robinson. John Reps and Kermit C. Parsons, on the faculty, had the most obvious interest in this sort of collection, but the person I heard most from on this topic was Barclay Jones. Jones mainly taught quantitative methods and economic history, but he was an architect and city planner as well, a polymath. I was a graduate student under Jones starting in 1962, and later on the faculty, when Jones urged expeditions to interview and perhaps get oral histories from various personages. On one occasion he urged me to visit John Gaus, a famous progressive and New Deal-era administrator who had retired nearby. On other occasions I would encounter Jones and Finch at lunch in the university’s faculty club, discussing the relative merits of collections of papers that Finch was considering acquiring. Once we were visited by Phillip Boardman, Patrick Geddes’ biographer, who was considering depositing papers to our archives. I never got involved in this. I was busy writing and teaching. I thought most of the old planners’ papers representative of an old approach to planning, and I was more interested in developing a new one. “Social planning” might have been the most common term used to define the sorts of new things I and some of my colleagues were interested in. This was in the 1960s and 1970s.

Later, in the 1980s, Finch had left Cornell but he had a number of successors, including Elaine Engst and Tom Hickerson, who put together a handsome catalogue of the planning collection. This was impressive. The entire collection had grown to a degree I had not imagined—some 150 or more sets of papers. It seemed that, once Finch got the planning collection started, it became increasingly easy to add more sets of papers by more people.

From a collection that initially reflected the early history of planning in the Progressive era—“city beautiful” and “city practical”—RMC had begun to attract papers from more modern variants in the field. There were the modernizers and quantifiers that Jones introduced us to, but also the “social planners” we had tried to emulate and build our work on in the 1960s and 1970s. Charles Abrams had left an extensive collection, but now there were the papers of Paul Davidoff and eventually Walter Thabit. Meanwhile, Parsons had been pursuing Aline McMahon, Clarence Stein’s widow, and eventually acquired Stein’s papers, along with a bequest that would fund continuing support for work on that part of the collection.

The most recent effort to build the RMC holdings came after some false starts. I had been involved with Wim Wiewel at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1989 in helping to create a collection at the Chicago Historical Society called the “Harold Washington Neighborhood Papers” and wanted something similar at Cornell. There was no point trying to compete with Chicago on this topic, but I thought it might be possible to create a central index on a computer, possibly one connected to other places with their own archives. I was inspired, really, by a passage written by Lewis Mumford in The City in History (1961, pp. 563-564):

Let me approach the more abstract relations of the invisible city by drawing a parallel to the new relation on a more visible plane: a small but accurate sample. Scattered over France , often in remote villages and monasteries, are many superb examples of early fresco painting. Under the earlier metropolitan regime, many of these paintings would have been removed, often not without damage, from their original site and housed in a museum in Paris . This would have left a gaping hole in the place of origin, and would have deprived the inhabitants of a possession that had both communal and economic value, without providing in Paris any true sense of their original setting. Today a better program has been achieved. In the Museum of Murals in the Palais de Chaillot, a large number of admirable replicas of these paintings have been brought together. In a single afternoon one may see more paintings than one could take in comfortably in a fortnight of traveling. For those who also wish a more intimate experience of the original on the site, the paintings have been identified and located: so that they have become more accessible, without their being wantonly dissociated from their original setting and purpose.

This is the first step toward a more general etherialization. With color slides now available, the process could be carried even further: any small town library or museum might borrow, and show in a projection room, an even larger collection of murals. Gone is primitive local monopoly through isolation: gone is the metropolitan monopoly through seizure and exploitation. This example will hold for a score of other activities. The ideal mission of the city is to further this process of cultural circulation and diffusion; and this will restore to many now subordinate urban centers a variety of activities that were once drained away for the exclusive benefit of the great city.

The Chicago project had ties to research that I and others had been doing on “progressive cities”—places that, beginning in the 1970s, innovated in city government and administration by incorporating some of the social movement ideas of the time, inventing redistributive programs and opening up city halls to wide participation. In addition to Chicago , Berkeley and Santa Monica in California ; Cleveland , Ohio ; Hartford , Connecticut ; Burlington , Vermont ; and Boston , Massachusetts , are examples of cities we had studied and for which we had put papers in the RMC. By 2006, persons from other places had begun to contribute more, for other places. For these and like-minded efforts, there was the possibility of creating collections more thematically focused than how archives normally are able to be.

Soon after returning from Chicago in 1990, I pursued the idea of a collection at Cornell. In Mumford’s spirit, the idea was to have some material at RMC, but mainly to encourage collections in the places where the history had happened. Since these were “progressive” cities, mainstream media and scholarship tended to ignore or trivialize them, and I thought these histories were particularly at risk.

But the time for this was not right. RMC was cramped for space, and later when I proposed something like this again, the library was in the process of a building program and was moving into new quarters. The right time came in 2004, for both the RMC and for me. I was losing space for perhaps ten filing cabinets worth of records. Not wanting to lose them, I tried again: Would RMC want ten boxes of valuable records, my own research notes, transcripts of interviews, tapes and documents, some of them of historical importance? RMC now had impressive new quarters, staff to handle the material and acid-free boxes to put them in. I received instructions to just bring them to the library loading dock.

With the boxes in the collection in the library, I decided to index them. I hired one of our students, Janine Cuneo, as a half-time summer assistant who, with help from others at the end of the summer, finished an index in spreadsheet form, a line for each folder. Later, at the beginning of 2006, the RMC staff converted the spreadsheet to HTML for its own online catalogue.

As for the course, it was not a straight line from catalogue to archival research to finished posters—the only course requirement. That was the plan—though I was not hopeful that a group of students would immediately jump at the chance to spend hours in the basement of the library poring through boxes of folders. But the mass of material turned out to be a motivator. Here is how it worked:

  • In the first session I made an hour-long presentation about the cities in the collection.
  • For the second session we visited the RMC space in the library basement. There, Elaine Engst taught the ABCs of archival research. She brought out rare plans and the catalogue done in the 1980s. She laid out the details of the process of searching the records: it would be done in a reading room, boxes brought to tables; pencils were allowed, pens were not; digital cameras were the preferred method of copying documents as well as photos—they minimized contact with often fragile materials.
  • Our collection was incomplete, most importantly in the area of “neighborhood planning,” for which we wanted to add material. As neighborhood planning is the province of Ken Reardon , my co-investigator on this project. He addressed the third session of the class, defining four rough categories of neighborhood planning projects that could be archived: organizing campaigns such as were the practice of ACORN, Citizen Action and a number of other organizations and approaches; resident-initiated neighborhood plans, the products of the classic advocacy planning made famous by Davidoff and others; city hall-initiated neighborhood planning such as we had experienced in places like Rochester, New York, and Savannah, Georgia; and community development institutions—hundreds of good examples, several of which we had researched at Cornell. We invited students to research some of these with an eye to eventual additions to the collection.
  • Next, students picked locations or topics to investigate. Two chose Burlington; one Cleveland; and another was doing a dissertation on Madison . There were three neighborhood efforts: an undergraduate honors thesis on Rochester’s “Neighbors Building Neighborhoods” approach; another on Walter Thabit’s advocacy planning in Cooper Square in New York City; and an investigation of the Davidoff papers, already in the RMC spaces.
  • The students were frustrated at the difficulty of capturing the story of these cases in the 250 words that were possible to put in a poster. Their work went through draft after draft. At one point we suggested that longer drafts might be possible—we’d submit them to Progressive Planning . This got some takers, as evidenced by the articles that follow. Each of these also turned into thesis projects.
  • One of the assignments in our “Introduction to Planning” course was to do an oral history interview of a practicing planner. Crystal Lackey, whose topic was Burlington , chose John Davis, former director of housing and currently one of the citizen leaders of that city’s Progressive Coalition. Davis mentioned that the current mayor was stepping down and that there was concern that the record of his administration’s achievement could be lost—could we be helpful? Lackey, who had just moved to Ithaca from Burlington , organized a trip during the January intersession for students to collect documents and oral histories from current officials and activists and in the process learn how a progressive city operates.
  • I also had a conversation with Davis. I mentioned that our goal was not mainly to collect documents to bring back to Cornell. Rather, we wanted to motivate a collection process in Burlington so that the city could have its own history. I asked Davis whether he and others could form a committee, including someone from a local archive, to worry about collections there. Davis suggested economics professor Jane Knodell of the University of Vermont. Knodell, in turn, contacted the university librarian, who agreed to expand the university’s role as a repository for city documents.

Perhaps this explains how the four articles presented in this special section ofProgressive Planning came to be written. Only one, Dentel Post’s on Cooper Square, was the direct result of archival research. The others, though stimulated by the existence of archives, were more of an effort to build on the collections.

Pierre Clavel is professor of city and regional planning at Cornell. Further elaboration of the project can be found at: .

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