Eminent and Notorious: Radical Urban Planner Chester Hartman (1936-2023)

An appreciation of the life and work of Chester Hartman, a radical planner in the service of a vision of social justice.

In 1960, Chester Hartman, then a graduate student in city planning at Harvard, received a notice from his draft board informing him that he had lost his student deferment and was reclassified 1-A. Rather than get drafted (the United States was calling up troops because of the Berlin crisis), Chester enlisted in the Army Reserve, which required an initial six months of active duty. He was assigned to a combat engineer unit at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where he volunteered to become a bulldozer driver. The Army instead assigned him to the typing pool. Only later would this twist of fate loom large in the history of city planning, because Chester went on to use his typing skills to write the most profound and effective critique of the nation’s bulldozer-style urban renewal.

In fact, since the 1960s, no one played a greater role in promoting progressive urban planning and housing policy than Chester, who died on May 9. Several generations of planners, urban policymakers, and organizers have learned not only from his writings but also from his example as an activist that the struggle for social justice is both necessary and possible. For five decades, Chester was on the front lines of the key battles: fighting top-down urban renewal, challenging displacement from gentrification, organizing for rent control, pushing for decent affordable housing, advocating for racial justice.

Born on April 12, 1936, Chester grew up in New York City and attended Harvard, graduating in 1957 with a degree in literature. He quickly got involved in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.

In early 1960, while on a few days leave from Army duty in Missouri, Chester visited Memphis, where he chanced upon a group of protesters picketing the local Woolworth’s store in solidarity with the students who had just launched the first lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, that February to protest segregation. Wearing his Army uniform, Chester grabbed a sign and joined the otherwise all-Black crowd of picketers. One of them—a local dentist who chaired Memphis’s NAACP chapter—came up to Chester, thanked him for his support, and, as Chester later recalled, “urged me to cut out of there, as the very very hostile white onlookers might actually kill me. He also invited me to his house for dinner that night, a most enjoyable occasion.”

After his Army stint, Chester returned to Cambridge to attend graduate school in urban planning at Harvard. While there, he helped mobilize students from Harvard, MIT, Brandeis, Wellesley, and other colleges to picket in front of the Woolworth’s store in Harvard Square every Saturday as part of the nationwide strategy to support the Southern protesters, whose sit-ins were growing across the region. As a result of that activism, Chester attended the founding conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April 1960—a transformational event in the movement.

Chester earned his Ph.D. in 1967. Although he was trained as a city planner, he was never seduced by the cult of expertise then (and to a lesser extent still) dominant in planning schools, and used his professional skills in the service of grassroots movements at both the local and national levels. He also helped build a national movement to link practitioners, scholars, and activists through two organizations—Planners Network (PN) and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC).

Equally important, he regularly stepped back from the battleground to write and reflect on the larger issues facing America’s cities and its poor and to share the lessons of his and others’ experience and thinking.

Chester wrote hundreds of articles in professional journals, newspapers’ op-ed pages, and magazines. He was an early supporter of, and contributor to, Igluub, as well as a presenter at the National Tenant Union conferences. He continued to write for and advise Igluub for many years. Igluub co-founder and president emeritus John Atlas recalls, “I had the privilege of recruiting Chester as an associate editor, and from the moment we first crossed paths, it was clear that he possessed an exceptional skill set and an unwavering passion for writing clearly and dramatically about the housing crisis and the role of radical planner. His keen eye for detail, profound understanding of the issues, and dedication to his craft made him an invaluable asset to Igluub.”

Chester wrote seven books and edited 12 other books. The best of his writings— 32 articles in all—were collected in Between Eminence and Notoriety: Four Decades of Radical Urban Planning, published in 2002, which got a foreword from Jane Jacobs and opened with an autobiographical essay in which he recounted the key people, events, and ideas that shaped his political and professional outlook; described the various zigs and zags of his career; reported on his involvement in the civil rights, community organizing, anti-Vietnam War, and anti-apartheid movements; and discussed his work building a network of activist planners and civil rights scholars and practitioners.

[RELATED ARTICLE: Igluub Interview with Chester Hartman]

Chester was part of the early wave of planners, activists, and social scientists (among them Mark Fried, Herbert Gans, and Leonard Duhl) who examined the human suffering caused by the physical destruction of Boston’s West End, a lively working-class community of three- to five-story apartment houses—not the blighted slum the city’s establishment claimed.

For more than a generation, planning students and practitioners have examined the political process that led to the razing of the West End as a case study in misguided urban planning. It was not simply a story of bureaucratic wrongdoing. It was a matter of greed and abuse of power. Some 7,000 residents lost their homes in the process, and their lives were never the same. As part of his Ph.D. dissertation project, Chester wrote about the displaced West Enders and, in two classic and influential articles—in the Journal of Social Issues in 1963 and in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners in 1964—he described how they were lied to, forced to move against their will, ended up in homes with higher rents, and lost the social ties and sense of community that had anchored them in their multiethnic neighborhood.

Chester, in other words, looked at urban renewal from the perspective of its victims, told their story, and then used his professional organizing and writing skills to challenge top-down planning. His combination of passion, persistence, political savvy, and professional skills helped change city planning for the better.

While in graduate school, Chester worked as an organizer for the 1962 U.S. Senate campaign of Harvard professor and peacenik H. Stuart Hughes (who lost to the then-30-year-old Ted Kennedy). Chester also served as the executive director of the newly formed Special Commission on Low-Income Housing, established in 1964 by the Massachusetts legislature, whose recommendations became the core of the nation’s most liberal statewide housing program of the period. He was also part of the early anti-Vietnam War movement and served as coordinator of the 1967 Vietnam summer project—a nationwide door-to-door canvassing campaign, staffed mainly by college students, to pressure Congress to oppose the war.

A year before completing his Ph.D., Chester joined Harvard’s urban planning faculty. As a faculty member he (and his students) worked with community groups in the Boston area to stop the state’s plan to build a highway through several poor and working-class neighborhoods—a successful effort that led the federal government for the first time to divert highway-building funds into a mass transit project. In 1969, his Harvard faculty colleagues denied him reappointment because they considered him an “unprofessional” radical for “taking sides” on behalf of the poor and working with local community struggles, and for supporting student demands to create a Black Studies program and end Harvard’s ROTC program.

With other activists, Chester started Urban Planning Aid, one of the first pro-bono “advocacy planning” groups in the country that worked with community organizations and progressive politicians to fight efforts by developers and their allies in government to push the poor from their neighborhoods in the name of “progress” and “urban revitalization.”

When he moved to the Bay Area in 1970 to work as a senior researcher with the National Housing Law Project, he continued his advocacy work. He devised strategies to help lawyers work with community and tenants groups (occasionally finding himself at odds with lawyers’ cult of expertise), including a major campaign to resist the razing of single-room occupancy hotels populated primarily by senior citizens. In 1979, he chaired San Franciscans for Affordable Housing, a broad coalition that put a rent control plan on the ballot. The measure lost, but that campaign led to the city’s first rent control law when the Board of Supervisors adopted a somewhat weaker law. These experiences led to several books—Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco (1974), Displacement: How to Fight It (1982), The Transformation of San Francisco (1984), and City for Sale (2002).

Political scientist John Mollenkopf frequently played basketball with Chester when they both lived in the Bay Area. He called him “Chet the Jet,” recalling that “he was great a cutting quickly in a new direction and making a good shot when he found an opening.”

Chester was always looking for openings—particularly ways to inject progressive ideas and policies into the public debate.

By the mid-1970s, a growing number of former New Left activists were working as community organizers. Some were even running for office in big and middle-size cities. In 1975, to help bring these people and efforts together, Chester typed a letter to about 300 planners and activists, and started a new organization, Planners Network—a counterweight to the establishment-oriented American Institute of Planners. Chester ran the first PN newsletter on a mimeograph machine and mailed it out to his network of activist friends. Through its newsletter (and later a journal) and its conference, PN has helped planners and activists share strategies and policy ideas and make what came to be called “advocacy planning” more legitimate within the broader profession.

In 1990, Chester became the first executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, created to link scholars and activists around civil rights and economic justice issues and to foster research by social scientists designed to expose and address structural racism and inequality.

After about a decade working with each organization, Chester handed off the day-to-day responsibilities to others, but his vision and spirit continue to infuse both thriving groups.

What’s particularly impressive is that Chester made a huge impact on planning education and practice without having had a typical career as a planner or an academic. He worked as a planning consultant for local governments but never had a career inside any city planning or redevelopment agency. He was, instead, a kind of freelance itinerant scholar activist, and it is this insider-outsider perspective that no doubt accounts for many of his most important insights.

He occasionally taught at major universities—including Harvard, Yale, the University of North Carolina, Cornell, UC-Berkeley, George Washington, Columbia, and the University of Massachusetts-Boston—but he never had a steady academic job. At Harvard and in his subsequent temporary teaching posts, Chester always taught students the importance and value of planners’ being advocates, typically by getting them directly involved with community organizing groups. This approach is still not widespread, but it is no longer so exceptional.

Chester moved to Washington, D.C., to join the Institute for Policy Studies (1981-1990) and then the Transnational Institute (1990-1996), both left-wing think tanks. IPS is best known for its critical studies of U.S. foreign policy, but Chester carved out a niche focusing on domestic and urban policy. Those think tanks gave Chester the freedom to write and edit several books while continuing his activism.

In 1987, for example, Chester led a campaign to elect anti-apartheid members to Harvard’s Board of Overseers, an important part of the larger campus movement to challenge U.S. support for the racist government in South Africa.

One of the major threads in Chester’s professional and political life was his ability to define what Michael Harrington once called the “left wing of the possible.” Conservatives and liberals alike often chastise leftists for knowing what they are against but not being able to explain what they are for. Although this criticism is generally unfair, there is a grain of truth in it. Progressives need to have their own policy agenda and need to know when and how to forge coalitions with liberals and other allies, inside and outside government.

Chester was at the forefront of pushing the Left to be both dreamers and schemers, to combine a radical vision with realistic policy proposals.

“The kitchen table in [his] small house was the scene of lots of strategy meetings,” recalled political scientist John Mollenkopf about his San Francisco experience. “Chester wasn’t an armchair radical. He was equally comfortable in meeting rooms and in the streets.”

He refused to simply be a critic or a utopian who pushes proposals that have no relevance to the real world of politics. He wrote many scathing critiques of national and local policy, but he always pushed for an alternative to the status quo that incorporated the principles of democracy and equality.

Progressive policy ideas rarely get enacted without negotiation and compromise. But whether these are stepping-stones for further reform or co-optation depends on activists’ political skills.

For example, in the early 1980s, at the height of Reagan’s inhumane cutbacks of federal housing assistance, Chester (then at IPS) played a key role in pulling together a task force of about a dozen radical scholars and activists to draft a detailed progressive federal housing policy that was eventually published as The Right to Housing: A Blueprint for Housing the Nation (1989), which leftist Rep. Ron Dellums translated into legislation called the National Comprehensive Housing Act. The report and the Dellums bill called on Congress to invest in a large scale program of permanently affordable social housing outside the private housing market, These ideas provided housing activists a road map for reform that has been useful in both local and national organizing campaigns.

During the Reagan years, Chester Hartman recognized the incredible influence that right-wing think tanks were having on policy debates and in the media by virtue of having both “big” ideas and detailed policy plans. Right before Reagan took office in 1981, the Heritage Foundation published Mandate for Leadership, a handbook of conservative policy prescriptions along with names of people who could fill key positions in the administration. Heritage updated the volume several times to bolster conservative ideas.

So in 1988, before Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis’s campaign for the White House against then–vice president George Bush took a nosedive, Chester coedited Winning America: Ideas and Leadership for the 1990s, a wide-ranging book of domestic and foreign policy proposals that served as a progressive counterpoint to Mandate for Leadership. In like fashion, soon after President Bill Clinton, who was elected in 1992, announced his Initiative on Race, Chester—by then working full-time at PRRAC—took advantage of his connections both inside and outside the Clinton administration to bring together leading scholars and activists to draft recommendations to Clinton’s task force and, once the task force report was written, to write an evaluation and an alternative prescription. Chester repeated this idea after Barack Obama was elected, editing a volume called Mandate for Change: Policies and Leadership for 2009 and Beyond (2009).

Chester was a master at pulling together his wide network of scholars and activists to contribute chapters to books he edited, typically with one or more colleagues. Editing such books is like herding cats and probably less fun, because it involves getting busy authors to agree to write chapters, then get them in on time, then revise them. But despite the time-consuming tasks and headaches, Chester got it done, editing 10 books between 1989 and 2013.

Chester’s edited books typically included a history and critique of mainstream programs and policies, a set of alternative and progressive approaches, and a political analysis and strategy for moving from here to there. A good example of this approach is Chester’s article (coauthored with Robin Drayer) comparing the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s public housing program (which was and still is starved for funds and excoriated as an example of the misguided liberal social programs for the poor) to the Department of Defense’s military family housing program (which was reasonably well run, enjoyed wide political support, and was also government-funded and government-run).

Ironically, Chester’s career was hardly planned, although there was a logic to each step along the way. He seized new opportunities where he felt he could make a difference, moving from Boston to San Francisco to Washington, taking on temporary and full-time jobs, utilizing his constantly expanding network of friends and colleagues to catalyze new organizations and campaigns.

Because Chester had such a varied career, it is possible to lose sight of the consistent threads connecting his various efforts: that planners and other professionals have to make choices about how (and for whom) they utilize their talents and that, if one wants to be effective, developing political dexterity is as important as mastering technical planning skills. To be an effective advocate for reform and justice, good intentions are not enough. One has to be part of a movement for change.

Chester was a giant in his field, but always with a modest, unassuming manner. He was a gentle, generous friend, colleague, and mentor. Sociologist Richard Appelbaum, who worked with Chester on several projects, described him as “a force of nature in the progressive housing movement” and “a mensch with a mission.”

Chester carved out a career as a radical planner in the service of a vision of social justice. For this—and for the Army’s foresight in diverting him from a career driving a bulldozer—we can all be grateful.

Chester is survived by his wife, Amy Fine, a highly regarded health policy consultant, and their sons, Jeremy and Benjamin. 

Editor's note: A version of this obituary appeared on the PRRAC website.

Correction: A earlier version of this article misidentified the establishment organization to which Planners Network was originally intended to be a counterweight. It was the American Institute of Planners.

Related Articles

  • About 25 people in three ragged rows, outdoors under a tree, with houses across the street behind them. They are of mixed ages, genders, and skin tones, and all are smiling. Many hold posterboard signs, some of which read "People Over Profit/Greedy Landlords," "Build Tenant Power," "Support the Bleecker Terrace Tenants Association," and "Capital Crossing/2nd most Code Violations in Albany." Other signs are not legible.

    In Upstate New York, the Fight for Good Cause Continues

    July 12, 2024

    This week, Ithaca became the latest city to opt into New York’s new Good Cause Eviction Law. What are tenant organizers doing to make the law work better for their communities?

  • How Policy Can Help Tenants Purchase Their Homes, a Webinar

    July 3, 2024

    Laws that give tenants the ability to purchase their own apartments are popping up across the country. In this webinar, a panel of folks who have been reporting on, fighting for, and using these policies offer their perspectives on this powerful anti-displacement tool. 

  • TOPA Needs Capital to Succeed

    July 2, 2024

    TOPA helps prevent displacement and build tenant power in D.C. Affordable capital is critical to its success.