I missed the third class in the "Creating Columbia" mini-course offered by the Columbia Archives--I was busy screaming my head off as my son ran the 3200 meter race in the Indoor Track state championships. Luckily, Barbara Kellner was kind enough to send me the notes from her talk. The class focused on a piece of the history of Columbia that intrigues me the most: "The Work Group", an advisory board of experts that Jim Rouse convened beginning in November, 1963.
As I understand it, the Work Group was an expression of Rouse's innovative approach to city planning. He wanted to include a community's social, emotional and aesthetic interests into the planning process. In his instructions to the Work Group, Rouse wrote:
“For many years, we have noted the wide gap between the people who are planning, designing, and developing our cities and the people with the knowledge about problems and solutions, hopes and opportunities among people in our urban society. Everywhere, plans proceed out of the ideas and images in the minds of the planners and developers. Almost nowhere does planning begin with the needs and yearning of the people.
“It is our purpose to plan out from the real needs of people, as best we can discover them, toward the physical form of the community and the institutions which are established in it. The course is largely uncharted, because there is very little precedent for what we are attempting. We have no illusions about the difficulties of relating such knowledge as does exist about how people live and grow, succeed or fail to the planning and development process. We do not expect to plan the ‘perfect’ community. We simply believe that by starting from people and working out we may get some new shafts of light that can influence the physical plan and development decisions. It is for that purpose that we have solicited your help, and it is to that task that we will bend our efforts with you over the months ahead.”
Of course, people had thought before about the connection between "the physical form of the community" and the "real needs of people". But in the 1950's, much of that thinking was focused on how developers could rejuvenate cities by tearing down blighted neighborhood are rebuilding cleaner, newer stuctures instead. Planners looked at crowded, older neighborhoods full of poor and working-class blacks, Latinos and ethnic whites and decided that everyon's lives would be better if they would move into newly-constructed high-rise public housing--or move out of the city.
I've heard that "Urban Renewal" was successful in some areas of Pittsburgh and elsewhere, but in Boston it was a complete disaster. The resulting "Government Center" area is without a doubt the ugliest and most awkward public space I have ever expereinced. Writer Bill Wasik described the area this way: "It is as if the space were calibrated to render futile any gathering, large or small, attempted anywhere on its arid expanse." Government Center was the end result of an urban renewal process that involved the near-total destruction of a vibrant Italian Catholic and Jewish neighborhood, the West End.
The West Enders received their eviction notices in 1958, and five years later, when the Work Group convened, their experience was without a doubt part of the conversation. I'm sure of this because the sociologist Herbert Gans was part of the group from its beginning. Gans' book on the West End, "The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans" had just been published. Gans--and Rouse--knew exactly what they shouldn't do. The planners should not be over-confident of their ability to improve people's lives simply through building them better homes on nicer streets. Other factors needed to be in the mix.
But as we all know, it is one thing to recognize mistakes in the past and something else entirely to change your way of thinking in order not to replicate those mistakes. Rouse called the first meeting of the Work Group, "the worst day I ever spent, [like] walking through mud." The account of that meeting in "New City Upon a Hill" by Joseph Rocco Mitchell and David L. Stebenne continues:
The group seemed directionless, as each participant sought to establish territoriality and began to express negativity regarding Columbia's future. The tenor of the meeting changed when Chester Rapkin, a housing expert, brought up the word Rouse had been asked to eschew--love! "You know we are all missing the point of these discussions," he said. "We are being asked how in a new community to nourish love." According to Jim Rouse, "the morale and performance of the group was transformed. And from then on, for four months, it was a creative, vigorous, sharing experience. (pp. 69-70)
That's the part of the history of Columbia that intrigues me the most. Love is what brought it together.