By Ken Reardon
On October 15 and 16, 1999, approximately fifty former members of Planners for Equal Opportunity (PEO) gathered for a 25th Reunion Celebration at Pratt Institute’s Manhattan Center. Following a short set of remarks by Lew Lubka and Walter Thabit, the assembled members stood, one by one, to describe their involvement in PEO during the 1960s and 1970s as well as their subsequent professional and political work. These individual reports described how this relatively small group of radical planners had attempted to move national urban policy in the U.S. in a more progressive direction.
The PEO Reunion participants described how their involvement in this organization had galvanized their individual commitment to economic, social, and racial justice and how this commitment had led them to subsequently become involved in a wide range of community struggles. They described their efforts to oppose Robert Moses’ pro-growth policies in New York City by challenging highway, housing and renewal projects that displaced low-income people of color. They told of their efforts to encourage the New York City Planning Department and the Tennessee Valley Authority to adopt redistributive policies and participatory policy-making procedures. They shared stories about their efforts, as researchers and expert witnesses, to show how well-intended Federal housing policies were reinforcing residential segregation in both Southern and Northern cities. They testified regarding their efforts to promote community-based housing, commercial and industrial development in East New York (NY), Newark (NJ), Boston (MA), San Francisco (CA), Washington (DC) and St. Louis (MO).
This introductory session went far beyond the allotted 45 minute time slot into a unplanned three hour session. Many participants expressed both surprise and pride in the number of critical urban policy debates of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s in which PEO members appeared to play a critical role. During the closing session, a number of participants highlighted the need to document the grassroots organizing efforts and national urban policy contributions of this small network of progressive community leaders, professional planners, planning academics and elected officials. Many felt it was important to tell the individual stories of PEO’s most active members now, when cynicism regarding the possibilities for progressive social change appears quite high.
Launching the PEP History Project
We are inviting interested individuals and organizations to join us in initiating a Planners for Equality Opportunity History Project which will document the grassroots organizing, planning and policy-change efforts of PEO activists during the period between 1960 and 1980 and explore the implications of this work for contemporary progressive planning practice. This project would be a cooperative effort involving former PEO Members, Planners Network members, and interested planning educators and students. The project would result in three tangible outcomes:
1) A set of interview transcripts with PEO Members, and selective documents highlighting their work, posted on the Planners Network website.
2) An expanded archive containing the personal papers of PEO activists to be deposited in the Progressive Planning Archive established by Professor Pierre Clavel in the Fine Arts Library of Cornell University.
3) A series of biographical profiles describing the contributions of individual PEO Members to progressive planning practice and urban policy to be published in future issues of Planners Network.
4) An edited book containing individual biographical profiles of PEO members whose research, writing, and activism has impacted local progressive planning practice and national urban policy in the post 1960s era.
To start with, I will work with Walter Thabit, Chester Hartman, Tom Angotti, and Pierre Clavel to develop a preliminary proposal for the Planners for Equal Opportunity History Project. A draft of the proposal will be circulated to all former PEO members and supporters to elicit volunteers for an Editorial Board. The Editorial Board would be responsible for planning the project, including the arrangement of taped interviews with former PEO members, transcription, editing and publication of the interviews. The Board would seek funding and support on campuses to cover research assistants, travel, transcription services, postage, copying, etc.
If you would like to take part in this effort, want more information or a copy of the preliminary proposal, or would like to make suggestions or criticisms, contact: Walter Thabit, 305 E. 11th Street #5C, New York, NY 10003-7461 (212-477-3694)WalterKT(at)aol(dot)com; or Ken Reardon, 109 Judd Falls Road, Ithaca, NY 14850 (607-266-0122) kmr22(at)cornell(dot)edu