Earning a Master’s in City Planning
October 5, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
Professor Israel Stollman cleared his throat after he took his seat at the end of the long table and drew our attention to his small, round face with a Cheshire Cat grin beneath a bald head. As new graduate students seated at the long table in the fall of 1965, we waited silently for a statement from the Head of Ohio State’s City Planning Department. After a long pause, he said, ”Hello.” The dozen or so students waited for him to continue. After another pause, he said, “Welcome.” The inscrutable grin returned. Finally he launched into a recitation of logistics for Fall Quarter classes, the vending machines, restrooms, the student lounge, and the City Planning Library. He said he had met each of us and was going to let us introduce ourselves as he stepped into his office and closed the door.
“I’m Alex Fittinghoff from San Francisco. When I graduated from San Louis Obispo College, I took a job in the Planning Department at Walnut Creek in the Bay Area. I wanted to make planning my career and recognized I needed a master’s. And here I am.”
“I am Santiago. I am from Bogota, Columbia. I wanted to see America, so…” said the light-complected, blue-eyed man with a pack of Gaulois cigarettes in his shirt pocket and looked expectantly to the man in a brown tweed suit beside him, Arthur Martin from Dublin, Ireland. Next was Lenore Burdick from Chicago, then students from Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, New York, and several from Ohio. More than half mentioned they were architects.
I introduced myself and said, “I’m not an architect. My BA is in Social Studies, and I was afraid I’d have to go to Law School. I’m much more interested in urban redevelopment, housing, and cities so I’m delighted to be here.”
Chuck Bogart concluded the introductions, saying “I’ve worked for the State of Kentucky for two years, and they offered to pay my way here if I’d commit to five more years with the state. You could say I’ll be an indentured city planner.”
Alex said, “Good to meet all of you guys. I’m going to check out the student lounge before our class in Planning Research.” After we filed out to the hallway, Alex said to me , “Stollman’s kind of a cold fish.”
“Kind of? He’s right out of the freezer. Stiff as a board,” I replied. We chatted with other students in the small lounge like guests at a reception waiting for the guest of honor, politely inquiring about shared travel experiences and possible mutual acquaintances.
Our first class was with Dr. Raymond Mills who was as affable as Stollman was distant. Ray, as we came to address him, was from Arkansas and held a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics. He outlined his courses in population projections, market analysis, traffic planning, and economic impact studies based on his experience in at the Chicago Regional Planning Commission. He admitted that specialists would do these studies, but we had to interpret their findings. He also said by doing some research we would understand how assumptions, methods, and data sources influence outcomes. Finally he said it was not too early to begin to think about a topic for the required thesis. The goal was to add new research findings to benefit the planning profession. Quite a challenge.
We met Professor Gherckins after lunch. He labored to present himself as our colleague, but came off as saccharine as a car salesman. He reminded me of the sweet gherkins pickles I stacked on grocery shelves as a stock boy. In his classroom, sitting on stools behind tilted drafting tables, we focused on physical planning learning the number of houses needed for a neighborhood school, playgrounds, and ball fields as well as the basics of water, sewer, and drainage systems.
On the next day we met Professor Hank Brinkers, a new instructor with experience in Boston’s urban renewal projects in downtown and ethnic neighborhoods. A tall, thin man, he took big steps and waved his arms during his lectures to dramatize his points. We nicknamed him “Swoop” and adopted Santiago’s pronunciation, “Svoope.”
In our first planning theory class, Professor Stollman announced that we would all attend the annual meeting of the American Institute of Planners in St. Louis in a month. He distributed brochures on the conference and assured us that the presentations and workshops would be educational.
After a day of riding through the farmland of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois in two rented vans, we found ourselves in a vintage downtown hotel teeming with planners from across the country. Mills and Gherckens were listed as speakers in the conference program. Everyone seemed to know Stollman. We were encouraged to see a room labeled “Planning Job Market’ with twenty or thirty cities at tables seeking staff. The federal government had begun to require a City Plan before cities received highway funding. The conference was our initiation into the modern equivalent of a guild for city planners.
The new St. Louis Gateway Arch was part of the conference logo, and the featured event was its completion and dedication on the last day of the conference. On an unseasonably warm afternoon, a large crowd watched from an expanse of newly laid sod as the 8-foot keystone piece was poised for placement 630 feet above a stage of dignitaries.
A voice boomed over the loudspeaker about a brief delay. A buzz rose from the spectators when fire department pumper trucks arrived at each leg of the arch, but there was no smoke. We waited as tugs pushed long lines of barges up and down the Mississippi behind the arch. Someone with eagle eyes spotted streams of water bathing the keystone from each leg of the arch. The mayor apologized for the delay and explained that the arch had expanded by five inches due to the warm sun, but his fire department had cooled it with water pumped from the river. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey gave a long, forgettable speech. Finally we watched the keystone raised into positions to thunderous cheers.
Upon our return to the classroom, Gherckins divided us into teams and assigned projects that involved both architectural drawings and written reports. The architects showed the rest of us how to use T-squares and triangles for scaled drawings, and the rest of us drafted text for our reports for their review. Historically planners were architects and engineers, but economics and sociology were becoming equally important in planning. We hotly debated the merits of design versus social studies initially, but as we pursued our team assignments we learned that both are necessary.
Alex, an avid football fan, and I became friends. He and his wife Sue often invited me for dinner after Ohio State home games. I brought beer and snacks to their apartment and we watched the away games. I had eschewed football during my undergraduate years as an aspiring intellectual spending time with liberal arts classmates, but my enthusiasm for the Buckeyes returned with new fervor in graduate school.
Santiago, a newcomer without a car, also befriended me. He and a redheaded student from South Africa had difficulty finding an off campus apartment. I suggested they identify themselves as a Spainard and a Brit, and their problem was quickly solved. Then I helped them move into their two-bedroom apartment.
Santiago’s exotic, sophisticated swagger drew coeds in abundance. He kept score on a page in the back of his address book with prisoners’ notation, four vertical lines with a slash. The notations grew every week. After a brief show of reluctance, he would share his score card with barely suppressed pride. Alex said if his list was exaggerated by half, it would still be impressive. Santiago’s thesis project was a plan for a new town on his family’s extensive coffee farm in Columbia. We were jealous that he would be the first among us to make his mark in the world.
During graduate school, I was not working and had time to hang out with my high school friend, Bob Dilenschneider, who graduated from Notre Dame and returned to Columbus for a Master of Public Relations at Ohio State. On weekends, we made the rounds to local bars, spent hours playing nine-ball at various pool halls, and amused ourselves by crashing receptions at local hotels. We didn’t improve much at pool, but we became good at improvising as accountants, engineers, or whatever convention was hosting a reception. We got some strange looks occasionally, but were never challenged as we ate their food and drank their booze.
I mentioned one of my term papers on the huge projected growth of restaurants in the next twenty years, and Bob said we should work together and get it published in Esquire or Playboy. I was skeptical, but we revised the article and he submitted it. A week later he met me at the Varsity Club waving an unopened envelope from Esquire. He ripped it open, extracted a letter, and his face fell. “God damn it! He says, ‘Since I don’t communicate regularly with the editor of Playboy, I am returning your article…’ Shit!” Before we ordered a second round, we were laughing about the editor’s amusement at our misdirected submissions.
Bob got an internship with NASA and spent two weeks at a Mercury space launch at Cape Kennedy. He regaled me with stories of the aggressive reporters who jostled each other at press conferences and shouted questions to the NASA briefers. “It was like a rugby scrum. I was actually scared of the mob of reporters and ready to run,” he said. This experience served him well when he faced reporters as the spokesman retained by the owner of the Three-Mile Island nuclear plant that melted down. As a result, Bob became a national authority on crisis management.
I occasionally dropped by poker games in the neighborhood late in the evening on the weekends. I didn’t take a seat at the table because the games had escalated from a nickel ante and ten cent raise to folding money. I also heard my grade school friends, Dick Reider and Charlie Houlihan, cite the mathematical odds on drawing to a straight and a flush. Dick later served in the penitentiary for gambling, and Charlie ran legal casinos. I didn’t know some of the guys around the table, and there were a lot of empty beer bottles. I stayed only long enough to kibitz for a while, drink one beer, and eat a piece of cold pizza.
When I returned from my internship in Berkeley for fall classes, Ray asked us if we believed we could forecast population, employment, land use and other key factors in the future. We assured him that he had given us the techniques to make these projections. He beamed for a moment, and said, “I’d like each of you to look at an old City Plan in our library and compare their population projections with census data. A week later, each of us reported on a city. Most were wrong by half or more, some high, some low. We were surprised and chagrined, but he said with a broad smile, “Remember, it’s always risky to make predictions—especially about the future.” Then he explained the many ways projections can go awry.
Gherckins informed us that we would use everything we had learned to prepare a City Plan for the City of Lancaster, a town of 30,000, an hour south of Columbus. Teams of students would each draft a plan, present it to the faculty, and then blend the best proposals into a City Plan and present it to the mayor, city council, and citizens at a public meeting in the spring.
During Fall Quarter, I began to think in earnest about a thesis topic. Somehow I became interested in the growing number of the elderly and their housing challenges. I discussed it with Professor Mills and he told me to identify a hypothesis and a way to test it. He reminded me a thesis was research, not discussion of a topic in a term paper.
I finally focused on why the elderly live in their large, old houses instead of selling and moving to apartments. Following extensive research in the library, my hypothesis was that they didn’t move because they feared exhausting their bank accounts and becoming a burden on their relatives, especially if they lived to be 90 or older. If the government made apartments available for the rest of their lives, more elderly would move out of large houses which could be made available to families, a net gain at relatively modest public cost. This policy would dovetail with President Lyndon Johnson’s vow to build millions of low-rent apartments as part of his War on Poverty.
With Ray’s help, I fashioned a questionnaire, obtained lists of elderly women who had and had not moved from their houses, and interviewed 85 women. I struggled to calculate the standard deviations in their responses to prove that the differences were statistically significant. I was intimidated by the challenge of adding knowledge to the planning profession. After several false starts, I struggled to compose an 86-page thesis which was accepted after a couple of rounds of revisions. It was bound and added to those on the shelves of the City Planning Library for scholars pursing related topics. I was gratified with this accomplishment and relieved that it was done.
(Three years later I visited my professors on a trip to Columbus. Discretely I stepped into the library and there was my thesis on the shelf. After a rush of pride, I was crestfallen that the library record inside indicated that no one had checked it out. I did not go by the library on future visits.)
After successfully defending my thesis and passing my oral exam, I traveled to Boston where I lugged my Remington typewriter up the steps to a fifth floor room at the YMCA, responded to job listings in a planning publication, and interviewed for several jobs in the area. As I awaited offers back in Columbus, I learned of an opening in Baltimore’s Urban Renewal and Housing Agency, made the drive across Pennsylvania and Maryland, and was offered the position at the end of the interview. I was relieved to accept immediately. Money from my fellowship was declining, I had a pregnant wife, and we were living in a friend’s basement apartment.
I went to campus and received warm congratulations and encouragement from my thesis advisor, Ray Mills. He encouraged me to adapt my research into an article for the professional planning journal. Still glowing from my visit with Ray, I went to Professor Stollman’s office and knocked softly on his open door. He looked up and flashed his familiar smile. I stepped into the room, related my news about the job in Baltimore, and expressed my appreciation to him.
He smiled, nodded and said “Goodbye.” The Cheshire Cat smile did not fade. I finally stammered, “Thanks for everything. Goodbye,” and backed out of his office. By then, I knew he was not uncaring, but fervently wished his students well. He was just a cold fish. In June of 1967, I left the campus in high spirits, ready for new challenges in Baltimore.