The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Black Urbanists, Part 4: Media

Robert Sengstacke Abbott, founder, publisher and editor of the Chicago Defender.  As America’s largest circulation and most widely-distributed black-owned newspaper, Abbott passionately and regularly called for blacks to leave the stultifying racism of the Jim Crow South to seek opportunity in the North’s industrial cities.  Source:

Links in the series:

Recognizing Black Urbanists
Black Urbanists, Part 1: Academia
Black Urbanists, Part 2: Community Activists

Black Urbanists, Part 3: Local Government Management

Prior to publishing her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, Jane Jacobs spent nearly two decades as a journalist, writing articles for Iron Age, Amerika (a Russian-language magazine produced by the U.S. State Department, designed to highlight American life in the Soviet Union), and Architectural Forum.  Lewis Mumford maintained a solid base as architecture critic and urban affairs writer at The New Yorker for more than three decades, providing him the platform that eventually led to the publishing of The Culture of Cities (1938) and The City in History (1961).  Jacobs and Mumford were able to develop their intellectual and philosophical foundations for years through their writings in periodicals before bursting on the scene with influential — and popular — books.

Neither was fully an urbanist in a practitioner’s sense; Mumford would occasionally contribute to urban planning consulting projects over the years, while Jacobs would turn to activism in defense of her beloved Greenwich Village neighborhood in New York City.  But both would become significant enough to the legions of city planners, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, civil engineers, transportation officials and other practitioners to consistently rank among the most influential urbanists of all time.  In Planetizen’s recent ranking of the top 100 most influential urbanists, Jacobs ranked first, while Mumford ranked sixth.

That’s the power of urbanists in media.

Today’s installment of the Recognizing Black Urbanists series features people who have used various media platforms to discuss the potential and perils of cities.  Some made their name in old-school newspaper publishing; others in today’s Internet-based blogging and e-publishing.  Some “stayed in their lane’ and hardly veered from the media platform that gave them prominence; others used the platform to move onward and upward.  To a person, however, each has used their platform to shape our perception of cities and spur us to action. 

Robert Sengstacke Abbott (1870-1940).  Abbott was a lawyer and newspaper publisher/editor who founded The Chicago Defender in 1905.  The paper quickly grew to have the largest circulation of any black-owned newspaper in the nation, and became the “paper of record” for blacks for much of the twentieth century.  However, Abbott earns a position here due to his role in influencing the Great Migration, which brought as many as six million African-Americans out of the rural South and into the urban Northeast, Midwest and West, as a matter of pursuing opportunity and social justice.  Abbott advocated strongly against Jim Crow and the racist tactics of the South, while also promoting Chicago in particular and the North in general as great destinations for economic opportunity.  Abbott frequently published successful migratory stories throughout the 1910s and 1920s, setting the stage for even more migration.

Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Although not generally considered to follow in the same vein as Jacobs and Mumford, Coates’ career, and intellectual and philosophical journey, is one that mimics theirs.  He spent time at The Village Voice, Washington City Paper and Time before landing at The Atlantic in 2007.  While at The Atlantic Coates wrote feature articles on race, politics, history and culture while maintaining a regular daily dialogue with readers via his blog.  His June 2014 article The Case for Reparations put Coates squarely at the center of urbanist discussions as he detailed the history of redlining in American cities.  Indeed, Coates intended for reparations to be considered for past institutional racism and housing discrimination practices in cities during the twentieth century, which created and deepened economic and social inequality, moreso than slavery.  His 2015 book Between the World and Me explores, as a letter to his teenaged son containing both personal and historical accounts, the legacy of violence as an enforcement tool supporting white supremacy in America.

Jamaal Green.  Green is an IGERT Fellow for the National Science Foundation at Portland State University in Portland, OR.  He has a Ph.D. in Urban Studies from Portland State.  But he made his name as a blogger from 2007 to 2016 with Surly Urbanism, which covered the intersection of race and public policy in American cities.  Recently he’s worked to serve as a bridge of understanding between seemingly competing interests in urbanism, anti-gentrification displacement activists and YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard, or pro-housing construction activists).  He likes to refer to himself as “a dude on Twitter.” 

Kristen Jeffers.  For more than ten years, Jeffers has been chronicling her “love of architecture, streets, trees, buses, trains and lots of other things in the environment” as The Black Urbanist.  Her writings focus on the importance of civic pride, cultural diversity and the importance of grassroots within communities.  She’s been a frequent speaker, panelist and moderator at engagements across the country, from the Congress of New Urbanism to state American Planning Association conferences, articulating a viewpoint of African-American inclusion in the urbanist sphere.  Jeffers’ podcast Third Wave Urbanism, conducted with urban anthropologist Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, covers wide-ranging topics such as gentrification, urban walkability, and the role of design in social justice and diversity in design professions.  Her work highlights the importance of identity in developing and maintaining sustainable communities.

Errol Louis.  New Yorkers recognize Louis as the host of Inside City Hall (whose name changes to Road to City Hall during election campaign seasons) on New York’s 24-hour cable news channel NY1.  The show is a nightly hour-long, hard-hitting exploration into the local politics of New York City, but often extends into the larger economic, social and cultural issues that shape politics in New York and beyond.  Louis has hosted the show since 2010.  In addition to his work on Inside City Hall, Louis is an adjunct professor and former Director of the Urban Reporting Program at the City University of New York, and is a frequent contributor on CNN.  Prior to his current role, Louis was a columnist and member of the Editorial Board for the New York Daily News, host of a daily radio morning show, and an associate editor for the New York Sun.  

Louis Martin (1912-1997).  Martin began his career as a journalist and maintained that role throughout, but parlayed that into an influential political career as a presidential adviser.  Martin was born in Tennessee and raised in Savannah, GA, but moved to Chicago to become a reporter for the Chicago Defender.  In 1937 he was sent to Detroit to help found The Michigan Chronicle, that city’s first black-owned newspaper.  During his tenure there he, like Robert Sengstacke Abbott before him, promoted the migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North, but also advocated involvement in civil rights issues and inclusion in organized labor.  Those activities led to his involvement in presidential politics, providing him the platform to be instrumental in the nominations of several prominent blacks into key federal positions, including Thurgood Marshall as U.S. Supreme Court justice.  

Dan Reed.  Reed is a real estate agent and freelance writer in the Washington, DC area.  He made his name in urbanist circles as a blogger, publishing Just Up The Pike, a chronicle of the “life and times of MoCo’s (Montgomery County, MD) east side.”  His work has been frequently featured in Washingtonian Magazine the Atlantic’s CityLab website.  Reed obtained a bachelor’s in architecture from the University of Maryland and a master’s in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania, and worked for a transportation consulting firm prior to his work in real estate.  Perhaps the youngest mentioned in this list (a verified 29), Reed is developing his niche, his voice and his prominence.

Carla Saulter.  Saulter is the self-described “bus chick” who blogs about public transportation at  Saulter is an ardent advocate for public transportation, having not owned a car in her hometown of Seattle for more than fourteen years.  Her work has been featured in Grist, the Houston Chronicle, Seattle Business Monthly, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Magazine.  Her regular reflections on a car-free lifestyle in an auto-centric world give hope to people willing to shed their car addiction. 

Next up: nonprofit leaders.

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