Founding member of VCU's Department of Urban Studies and Planning looks back on the program turning 30


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The same year that the Urban Studies Program was established, Dean Acheson, the U.S. Secretary of State during the Truman Administration and the principal architect of our nation's foreign policy during the onset of the Cold War, wrote a book entitled "Present at the Creation." On the frontispiece, Acheson includes a quotation from the 13th century King of Spain, Aphonso X, the Learned. "Had I been present at the creation," opined Aphonso the Learned, "I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe."
VCU Department of Urban Studies and Planning faculty (from left): Avrum Shriar, Ph.D., John Accordino, Ph.D., John Moeser, Ph.D., Mort Gulak, Ph.D., Helen-Ruth Aspaas, Ph.D., Mike Brooks, Ph.D., Margot Garcia, Ph.D., Weiping Wu, Ph.D., Gary Johnson, Ph.D.
Not pictured: Robert Rugg, Ph.D., Helene Lovell, office manager

Photo by Quynn Nguyen
VCU Department of Urban Studies and Planning faculty (from left): Avrum Shriar, Ph.D., John Accordino, Ph.D., John Moeser, Ph.D., Mort Gulak, Ph.D., Helen-Ruth Aspaas, Ph.D., Mike Brooks, Ph.D., Margot Garcia, Ph.D., Weiping Wu, Ph.D., Gary Johnson, Ph.D. Not pictured: Robert Rugg, Ph.D., Helene Lovell, office manager Photo by Quynn Nguyen

After hearing about the creation of Virginia Commonwealth University's urban studies and planning programs, you may find yourself agreeing with Aphonso, that you too would have gone about creation a bit differently. When discussing the history of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, I draw heavily on my own experiences since, after all, I was present at the creation.

I start with simple history, however, not tall tales. It is a history story that bears repeating since this university should never lose sight of its origins. In 1968, based on the recommendations of a blue ribbon panel popularly known as the Wayne Commission, the Virginia General Assembly created Virginia Commonwealth University. The product of a merger between Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia, VCU was birthed with a mission unique among Virginia's public colleges and universities. The rationale for the new university was abundantly clear in the Wayne Commission Report. What was said then remains relevant to this day. "It has become increasingly apparent," the
commission noted,

"that the conditions prevailing in our urban centers present many of our most critical national, state, and local problems. However we may view the social, political or economic issues facing our nation today, we are aware that our future depends in large part upon the wisdom with which we attack and solve the dilemmas of our cities.

It is important that we anticipate the possible role of the university in the solution of these problems. Virginia currently has no institution of higher education, private or state controlled, with a primary orientation toward these pressing concerns. Rarely has any university been accorded a more timely opportunity to confront on an intellectual and practical level the social environment which surrounds it. Rarely has so challenging an opportunity to combine the free pursuit of knowledge in its own right with the ready availability of that knowledge for the enlightenment and enrichment of the larger community of which it is a part been presented to an institution of higher education."

One year after the founding of the university, the VCU Board of Visitors in 1969 established the Urban Studies Program. For approximately a year, the program was housed with the Vice President for Academic Affairs. On Dec. 1, 1970, however, the program was assigned to the School of Community Services.

The principal architect of the program was Harland W. Westermann. He had come to VCU from Virginia Tech where he was professor and director of VPI's Center for Urban and Regional Studies. Aiding Westermann in sketching out the broad outlines of the program was former superintendent of Richmond Public Schools and former member of the Wayne Commission, H.I. Willett. Willett was a highly regarded educator who guided the city schools during the initial stages of school desegregation when Louis Powell, who later became an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, chaired the Richmond School Board. After Willett retired from the Richmond Public Schools, he joined VCU as a consultant and became a professor of education and worked with Westermann in the earliest phase of the Urban Studies Program.

Harland Westermann, or "Rusty," as he was called, had been recruited to spearhead the Urban Studies Program and to preside over the School of Community Services. Rusty's three degrees, including his Ph.D., were all in geography. Indeed, geography was one of the lead disciplines in the early years of the Urban Studies Program. Because of that tie, the non-degree undergraduate geography program at VCU, which had been housed in the Department of History, was shifted to the Department of Urban Studies and Planning in the mid-'90s. Effective next fall, in an effort to provide a home for students interested in geography and to integrate more effectively the fields of geography and urban studies, the Bachelor of Science Degree in Urban Studies will be replaced with the B.S. in Urban Studies and Geography.

Rusty was larger than life. Had it not been for his coat and tie, given his colorful vocabulary, his booming voice, and his buzz hair cut, one could easily have mistaken him as the line coach for the Green Bay Packers, either that or a local organizer for the Teamsters. He was a chain smoker who would regale audiences with his stories. His laugh was infectious. Rusty was not a particularly sensitive soul in touch with his inner self. He was in your face. What you saw was what you got. But, in spite of his bluster, Rusty was plenty bright. In this early period, pre-dating the emergence of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree, most of the material submitted to the VCU administration and the State Council of Higher Education about the proposed Bachelor of Science in Urban Studies was written by Rusty. What he wrote is still worth reading today.

When developing the relationship of the proposed undergraduate degree program to the urban mission of the university, Rusty drew on the Wayne Commission, which called for an emphasis on urban studies. "Clearly, each discipline, each department and school with the Virginia Commonwealth University," Rusty noted, "must contribute to this effort to fashion a university that can offer uniquely relevant contributions to the community of which it is a part. But within the diversity of disciplines, interests, and perspectives that constitute a university, there is a need for a program devoted exclusively to the study of urbanization with a curriculum intended to give the student an integrated, generalist perspective on the urban phenomenon, a phenomenon peculiar neither to Richmond nor to Virginia." He then went on to note how other universities also recognized the need for urban studies programs but that many of these programs relied on urban offerings in existing departments. The flaw with such an approach, Rusty observed, was that students lacked the means of rectifying the differing perspective and emphases of the various disciplines. As a result, he said, "Urban studies programs must be distinct entities providing their own faculties and complement of core courses."

The new degree program was adopted and faculty were recruited. There still was no Department of Urban Studies and Planning, only a program, albeit a program with its own faculty. The department would not be formed until 1974.

I was among the first batch of faculty recruited. I will never forget that spring of 1970, the year I completed my doctoral exams at George Washington University where I was studying political science. My doctoral advisor, Hugh LeBlanc, was a good friend of Rusty's. Prior to VCU and also prior to his years as director of urban and regional studies at VPI, Rusty had been professor of geography at George Washington University. I had received an NDEA grant to work on the dissertation and I was getting underway on the initial research when I was approached by professor LeBlanc about whether I would be interested in a position with a newly formed Urban Studies Program at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. I had never heard of Virginia Commonwealth University. My only experience with Richmond was driving through the city on Interstates 95/64 on my way to Williamsburg. I had not planned to start looking for a teaching post until after I had completed the Ph.D., but positions for social scientists were scarce so I asked my mentor what he recommended. He advised me to at least explore the opportunity.

In May of 1970, my wife Sharon and I drove down to Richmond in our two-door Ford Falcon. I was to meet with the search committee, namely, Rusty. I was a bit uneasy since I had never taken a single course in urban studies, urban planning or even urban politics. My doctoral work had focused on American politics, political theory, comparative government and politics, international politics, and U.S. foreign policy. I remember Rusty taking me to the Chesterfield Apartments at the corner of Shafer and Franklin. At that time, the Chesterfield had a wonderful dining room and was well known for its homemade rolls. Rusty told me to order anything I wanted, so I took him up on the offer and ordered a filet and all the trimmings, all for $2.50.

Rusty told me about VCU, its urban mission, and the new Urban Studies Program. He needed a political scientist and trusted LeBlanc's judgment, though to this day I don't know what I said since I couldn't talk with much authority about urban studies or urban and regional planning. I had grown up on the high plains of West Texas where Lubbock was the only place of any size. Cotton farming was the economic base and, except for one skyscraper of twenty stories, grain elevators constituted the skyline. True, from 1967 to 1970, I had studied in Washington, D.C., but going to school in a large city is not the same as learning about large cities in a school. What led Rusty to hire me is still a mystery. Perhaps it was because I didn't dribble food on my tie or spill coffee on the linen tablecloth. I spent most of the time listening to Rusty and, of course, laughing appropriately at his jokes. I was so inexperienced that I didn't have a lot of questions of my own. Some of you know that I occasionally suffer from vertigo. I think it stems from that interview when all of that nodding during Rusty's monologue affected my inner ear.

Since I was heading to VCU as a newly-minted assistant professor of urban studies and still had my dissertation to write, I thought it wise to select a subject related to urban studies and one that would enable me to collect data here in Richmond. So, the Richmond City Council became the focus of my research. Little did I know that the dissertation would become the springboard for additional scholarship over the years that focused on racial politics and metropolitan and regional government and politics.

The move to Richmond in the summer of 1970 was another experience that I will never forget. After having lived in the Washington area during the tumultuous sixties, and having participated in that tumult, the move to Richmond was pure culture shock. Coming to Richmond was like returning to Lubbock, except for the fact that Lubbock was never the Capital of the Confederacy. The only Lost Cause that Lubbock had experienced was the repeated loss of the Texas Tech Red Raiders to the Long Horns of the University of Texas or the Texas Aggies. In 1970, Richmond had annexed 23 square miles from Chesterfield County, the most racially divisive event in post World War II Richmond history. And guess where we first lived? The annexed area. Those were difficult years both personally and certainly for the city. It was a place that was torn apart by racial conflict. The combination of annexation and cross-town busing was explosive. Richmond at that time was an ugly place politically and socially. The Moesers were ready to make a u-turn and head back to Washington.

One experience illustrated the kind of place to which we had moved. One Sunday, Sharon and I were making our way to church and decided to stop at a convenience store and pick up a copy of the "New York Times." I stayed in the car while Sharon hopped out and went into the store, asking the clerk if she had the "Times." The clerk looked puzzled and asked if she meant the "Richmond Times-Dispatch." "No," Sharon said, "the New York Times." "Oh," the woman replied. "Do you mean that great big thick paper?" "That's probably the one," Sharon noted. "I'm sorry," said the clerk, "we sold it just about an hour ago." It seems that the store carried only one copy. Welcome to Richmond!

I actually started teaching in the spring of 1971 since the previous fall was used to get started on my dissertation. Inasmuch as most of the urban studies courses were yet to be developed, my spring teaching load included introductory courses in political science. Apart from Rusty, the only other member of the faculty was Joseph Stevens, hired as an associate professor. He received his degree in law and political science from the University of Vienna in 1935 and a Master of Comparative Law degree from George Washington University in 1951. Like me, Joe came to VCU without having formally studied urban development. But also like me, Joe was a GW graduate. Rusty for some reason liked George Washington University irrespective of the fact that his first two hires were not versed in the subject that they were recruited to teach. Joe had taught German, French and political science. He had been vice president and general manager of a general contracting firm specializing in modular housing so, naturally, Joe talked a great deal about modular housing. He was a retired Air Force intelligence officer. Referring to himself in the third person, Joe made this notation on his curriculum vitae, which included not a single published article: "During U.S. Government service he wrote many papers which formed the basis for important government action. Because of the classified nature of his activities these reports were never published." I was always curious about those classified studies.

Joe had begun teaching a semester earlier in the fall of 1970. When I arrived in January 1971, we shared an office on the third floor of the building next to Franklin Terrace where the Department of Criminal Justice is now located. Sharing an office with Joe was an experience. His wife Mary came from a prominent republican family in Maryland, and, I suspect through Mary's political connections, Joe developed contacts with important people in the Nixon White House. Shortly after arriving at VCU, Joe put together a weekly television program, "Urban Man, SOS." It ran every Sunday afternoon on WWBT Television. Joe would invite key Nixon appointees to his television show. Joe was always on the phone talking to some important official, getting ready for his show. When Joe wasn't in the office and the phone would ring, I would answer. The voice on the other end would say, "This is the White House calling Dr. Joseph Stevens." And I would complete one of those pink telephone slips and put it on Joe's desk. Joe also planned receptions for his television guests and invited VCU officials, including Rusty and H.I. Willet, to those weekly gatherings. Of course, Joe did most of the planning for the programs and the receptions in our little office. As best as I can recall, however, the only time that Sharon and I saw any of his guests was when we watched "Urban Man SOS" on TV.

By fall of 1971, four others joined Rusty, Joe and me. David Ames was appointed by Rusty to chair the Urban Studies Program. Ames had received his Ph.D. in geography from Clark University though, catch this, he had received his B.A. and M.A. in geography from none other than George Washington University. Budd Herbert also joined the faculty, having earned his doctorate in geography from Ohio State. The other two were Wayne Newton, not the singer Wayne Newton, but a Ph.D. in social planning from Brandeis University, and T. Ufere Torti, a Nigerian who had grown up in his native country but who came to the United States for higher education, receiving his urban and regional planning degree from the University of Wisconsin.

That fall the Urban Studies Program moved to the Landmark Theatre, then known as "The Mosque." All of us, except for Rusty and David Ames, shared a single room on the third floor of the Mosque. Metal bookshelves divided the room into cubicles. Some of those metal bookshelves are still in use. Avrum Shriar, our newest member of the faculty, has inherited them. What was great about the Mosque was taking a break in the middle of the afternoon and listening to the Richmond Symphony rehearse for its next performance. Also my cubicle had a window that looked out on Monroe Park. That was the only time in my career that I had an office with a decent view.

Initially, the 18 urban studies courses developed for the undergraduate program were offered as service courses to other degree programs. The B.S. in Urban Studies didn't officially get underway until fall of 1972, the same year that the faculty moved from the Mosque to Franklin Terrace. That was also the semester that architect and urban designer Mort Gulak joined the faculty. Later, Mort redesigned the office space, which led to opening passages through the walls and creating space for common use. His design facilitated communication among faculty and between faculty and students and thus contributed to the strong academic community we have enjoyed over the years.

From 1971 to 1972, the faculty put together the Master of Urban and Regional Planning Program, which officially got underway in the fall of 1973. Mort, I'm sure, remembers those long faculty meetings that were held during the week and even on weekends as we brainstormed the MURP degree program. By the way, when constructing the undergraduate degree, we debated at some length whether it should be a junior planning program or whether it should be a liberal arts degree program. We opted for the latter and it has remained a liberal arts degree to this day. The rationale for the liberal arts orientation was based on what we believed was the most appropriate type of learning for undergraduate students. Admittedly, though, we rejected a Bachelor of Urban and Regional Planning lest we have both a MURP and a BURP.

Urban Studies and Planning became a department in 1974, the year that Bob Rugg and Peter Schulz, both geographers, joined the faculty. In those days, just about everybody smoked. I may have been the lone exception. During the winter months, we would have faculty meetings in the room where Margot Garcia now has her office. With the noise of typewriters and telephones, noise made louder by the lack of sound-absorbing carpet, we kept the conference room door shut so that we could hear. Since it was cold outside, the one and only window was also shut. When the meetings were called to order, everybody would proceed to light up. Most smoked cigarettes, though Mort preferred cigars and Bob a pipe. The result was a thick fog that reminded me of the cloud that formed behind the DDT trucks each summer as they motored down the alleys in Lubbock (Permit an irrelevant side note. One of my memories as a kid was rounding up my neighborhood buddies and following those DDT trucks down the alley and engulfing ourselves in that sweet smelling cloud. I'm lucky to be alive, though it's been a long time since I've heard from my buddies). Back to those faculty meetings. That tobacco smoke was so heavy that when I would got home from school and changed clothes---including my plaid sport coat with the stylish shoulder pleats, the shirt of many colors with the long-tapered collar, the psychedelic-five-inch-wide tie, and the brown polyester bell bottoms with the lovely bumper-sized belt---when I put my clothes in the closet, the closet would wind up smelling like a darn camp fire. On the other hand, I don't remember moths ever eating my clothes, but that was probably because the moths simply had better taste.

As the years passed, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning became stronger and more visible in the planning profession. For one thing, I've learned a lot more about urban politics and am no longer just one chapter ahead of my students. I'm now a couple of chapters ahead! One of the joys of having been present at the creation is witnessing a program that had such an inauspicious beginning emerge into a program of academic stature. The Urban and Regional Planning Program, first recognized by the American Planning Association in 1977 and accredited by the Planning Accreditation Board in 1982 and each five years thereafter, enjoys a strong reputation throughout the nation. While the 10-person faculty has remained fairly constant, our student enrollments, scholarly output, professional and community service, have grown dramatically.

Faculty changes occurred as colleagues retired or moved and new faculty were recruited. John Accordino arrived in 1986; Margot Garcia in 1989 as department chair. Mike Brooks, the dean of the School of Community and Public Affairs, assumed a full-time position with the department in 1993 after having completed a special assignment by the president to head the university's strategic planning process. One of the outcomes of the strategic plan was the relocation of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning to the College of Humanities and Sciences. Gary Johnson joined full-time in 1991 after having served as the director of the Center for Public Affairs. Weiping Wu joined the department in 1995; Helen Ruth Aspaas affiliated with the department in 1998. Avrum Shriar joined us in the year 2000.

At the graduate level, beginning in the 1980-81 academic year, the dual degree program in law and urban and regional planning was instituted in cooperation with the T.C. Williams School of Law at the University of Richmond. Two years later, in 1983, the graduate certificate program in planning information was created. In 1984, still another certificate program was added; this one in urban revitalization. In 1996, the Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration was established.
Our department plays the lead role in the Urban Policy Concentration of the doctoral program. Thanks to the good work of Mike Brooks and others who participate in the Urban Policy Seminar and direct doctoral dissertations, the concentration, indeed, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, are gaining a well deserved reputation among the doctoral students as places where both teaching and advising are valued.

Our graduate urban and regional planning students must complete a studio project. Working with a client, they produce a plan that not only draws on the skill and the knowledge that students have acquired at VCU but also addresses a need identified by a locality, public agency, neighborhood group, non-profit organization, CDC, or small business association. To date, our students have completed 28 commercial revitalization plans, 14 comprehensive plans, 32 economic development plans, 30 environmental plans, 8 health-related plans, 10 historic preservation plans, 22 housing plans, 42 land use plans, 83 neighborhood plans, and 24 transportation plans.

Our students have gone on to direct major state and local planning and community development agencies, head regional economic development partnerships, serve as cabinet secretaries and policy advisors to the governor, serve as elected officials in the Virginia General Assembly and local legislative bodies, create and direct housing organizations and community development corporations, and provide leadership to a large number of non-profit agencies and private consulting firms.

The professional and community-service work of the faculty at the national, state and local levels is equally impressive. In the early 1980s, a generous gift from Andrew Asch, a local businessman who played an important role in the revitalization of Richmond's Shockoe Slip, led to the creation of the Richmond Revitalization Program. Administered by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and overseen by a board of directors comprised of architects, developers, public officials and leading civic leaders of Richmond, Richmond Revitalization identified revitalization opportunities in the Richmond area and undertook studies involving faculty and students that provided the basis for major redevelopment. Mort Gulak was the founding director of the program. John Young succeeded him. Carter McDowell, then a graduate planning student who, after she graduated, helped to establish the Better Housing Coalition, was the editor of "Revitalization News," a wonderfully creative newsletter sponsored by Richmond Revitalization.

The Planning Accreditation Board, in its most recent site visit to VCU, praised the department faculty for its extensive network of service activities. Our visibility in national planning circles is particularly impressive. Mike Brooks is a former president of both the American Planning Association and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. In 2002, he received the Jay Chatterjee Award for distinguished service to planning education. Margot Garcia is a former Commissioner of the American Institute of Certified Planners and the 2001 recipient of the Margarita McCoy Award for the advancement of women in planning at institutions of higher education. Gary Johnson, for five years, was the co-editor of the "Journal of the American Planning Association," the largest and most prestigious scholarly journal in the field of urban studies and planning. John Accordino was the chair of the APA Economic Development Division.

Meanwhile, Bob Rugg gained international prominence as a member of the U.S. delegation to the International Organization for Standardization Technical Committee on Geographic Information/Geomatics. Adding to the international reputation of the department are Weiping Wu, Helen Ruth Aspaas, and Avrum Shriar. Wu has worked at the World Bank and the Brookings Institution and most recently served as a consultant to the Ford Foundation's Beijing, China, office where she has reviewed grant projects on labor mobility in China. Helen Ruth, our Africa specialist, has done extensive work in Kenya, working with rural women involved in micro enterprise. Avrum specializes in rural development, farming systems and land use, and natural resource management in Latin American and the Caribbean.

The faculty's involvement with the Commonwealth of Virginia and in the local area is more extensive than time permits to catalogue. Suffice it to say, however, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning has taken seriously the charge that the Wayne Commission gave to the university itself; namely, to develop a cooperative relationship with urban communities and to bring to bear on the issues affecting metropolitan areas the resources of the university in an effort to improve the quality of life. This department has done exactly what Ellen Lagemann, professor of history and education at Columbia University, once said about the goal of any university that defines professional service as a central mission---which is "to bring knowledge into intimate relationships with the small, daily problems of real people and real neighborhoods."

Who would have guessed back in 1971 when Joe Stevens and I shared that small office that this little program for which we were recruited would someday become a nationally prominent department that actually included faculty who knew something about which they were teaching? Who would have guessed?

I want to recognize three of my colleagues who are retiring this spring and who have played a very important role in this creation story: Mike Brooks, Margot Garcia and Bob Rugg. The department is where it is today because of their ideas, hard work, and commitment both to this academic enterprise as well as to the communities we serve. I am saddened by their retirement but I know that I speak for everyone when I thank them for their singular contributions and wish them the very best in this new phase of life.

What do teachers most value? It is not the awards, prominence in professional societies, or the public recognition - if it ever comes. Besides, all of that is fleeting. For teachers, what is most valuable are the men and women who filled our classrooms, sat in our offices, worked beside us, challenged us, humored us, ticked us off and reaffirmed our decision to become teachers.