The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Black Urbanists, Part 6: Politicians and Private Practice

The Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport.  The structure was designed by noted black architect Paul Williams while he was employed at the Los Angeles architectural firm Pereira and Luckman.  The structure is a Los Angeles Historic and Cultural Monument.  It was completed in 1961.  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

Black Urbanists, Part 4: Media
Black Urbanists, Part 5: Nonprofits

I tend not to think of politicians as urbanists, for the most part.  True, many politicians, particularly those who focus their work on the local level, build political careers representing urban interests.  But there are so many interests that politicians at all levels have to pay attention to, their political foundation expands out of necessity.  But there are people who recognize the work of politician urbanists.

Persons who address urban issues and concerns through a private practice, however, are a well-recognized group of urbanists.  Architects, landscape architects, urban designers, engineers and developers form a large part of groups like the Congress for the New Urbanism, and their professional work gives them broad access to directly address the issues that concern them.  Sadly, blacks remain an underrepresented group in these professions, perhaps leading to (incorrect) perceptions that blacks aren’t taking an active role in addressing urban concerns.  In my view we should note the work of blacks working in these fields, and actively seek greater diversity in these very visible professions.

Here are the nominated black urbanists recognized for their work in politics and in private practice.


David Dinkins.  Dinkins was the first (and so far only) black mayor of New York City, serving from 1990-93.  After graduating from Howard University and Brooklyn Law School, Dinkins established a law practice and became involved in Democratic Party politics.  He was elected as a member of the New York State Assembly in 1966, then served as president of the Board of Elections, New York City Clerk, and Manhattan Borough President prior to becoming mayor.  Dinkins’ administration oversaw the beginning of a dramatic decline in crime in New York, but many New Yorkers remember the tumult of the period and still question whether he’s more connected to the troubles that preceded him, or the revitalization that followed.

Anthony Foxx.  Elected as the youngest mayor in Charlotte, NC’s history, and its second black mayor, Foxx parlayed his meteoric rise in local politics into a term as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation under President Barack Obama.  Foxx graduated from Davidson College and New York University Law School before going into private law practice.  He served two two-year terms on the Charlotte City Council before being elected mayor in 2009, at age 38.  He was nominated as Transportation Secretary in 2013 and served until the end of President Obama’s term in 2017.  He became an ardent proponent of rapid transit projects, playing an integral role in streetcar projects in Detroit and his hometown of Charlotte.

Barack Obama.  President Obama’s political rise from state senator to U.S. Senator to President, in the span of just eight years, is well-known.  But his reputation as someone concerned about urban issues likely stems from his work in community organizing in Chicago.  After graduating from Columbia Law School, Obama was hired as director of Chicago’s Developing Communities Project, a church-based community organization originally comprising eight Catholic parishes in the Roseland, West Pullman, and Riverdale neighborhoods on Chicago’s Far South Side. Between 1985 and 1988, he helped set up a job training program, a college preparatory tutoring program, and a tenants’ rights organization in the Altgeld Gardens public housing complex.

Ron Sims.  Sims became the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama administration, serving from 2009-2011.  He was appointed to that position after a long political career in the King County Council in Washington state, serving as a county council member from 1985-96, and as County Executive from 1996 until his HUD appointment in 2009.  A native of Spokane, WA, he graduated from Central Washington University with a degree in psychology and had stints with the Washington State Attorney General’s office, the Federal Trade Commission and the City of Seattle prior to his King County Council service.

Carl Stokes (1927-1996).  Born in Cleveland, Stokes and his brother, Louis (see below) turned their humble beginnings into impressive political careers.  Raised in the Outhwaite Homes, one of the first federally funded public housing projects in the U.S., Stokes was a high school dropout who returned to earn his diploma at age 20.  He later graduated from the University of Minnesota and the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, worked as an assistant prosecutor in Cuyahoga County, and established a law practice with his brother in 1961.  Stokes was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1962 and mayor of Cleveland in 1967, becoming one of the first black mayors of a major U.S. city.  After serving as mayor he worked as a news anchorman for New York’s WNBC, as a municipal judge in Cleveland, and as U.S. Ambassador to the Seychelles under President Bill Clinton.

Louis Stokes (1925-2015).  While his brother Carl rose to the heights of local government in Cleveland, Louis maintained a long and distinguished career in Congress.  He attended Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and began practicing law in 1953.  He and his brother used their law firm platform to run for political office, and Louis became the black U.S. representative from the state of Ohio in 1969.  He served 15 terms representing Cleveland’s East Side, was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from 1987-89.

Harold Washington (1922-1987).  Elected as Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983, Washington followed a path very similar to the Stokes brothers in Cleveland.  After serving in the military during World War II, Washington returned to Chicago and attended Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University) and later Northwestern University Law School.  He immediately went into local Democratic Party politics, working for 14 years with Alderman Ralph Metcalfe.  With Metcalfe’s backing, Washington served in the Illinois House from 1965-76, the Illinois Senate from 1976-80, and the U.S. House from 1980-83.  He famously ran for mayor of Chicago in 1983 and won on the strength of a then-unique coalition progressive whites and a kaleidoscope of minorities.

Robert Weaver (1907-1997).  As an academic, economist and political administrator, Weaver rose to become the first Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  He began a long career in federal public policy following his graduation from Harvard with a Ph.D. in economics in 1934.  He was known to be particularly knowledgeable about housing issues and became a member of a group of close advisers to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  He left the federal government following Roosevelt’s death and worked in academia and in housing posts in New York City, but returned to public policy in the Kennedy administration.  He became the Secretary of HUD in 1966 and was the nation’s first black Cabinet member.  He wrote multiple books detailing the challenges of blacks in large cities in the mid-twentieth century, and was instrumental in the creation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 — which serves as a foundation for HUD’s work to this day.

Coleman Young (1918-1997).  Known for controversy and fiery rhetoric, Young used the platform of labor movement leadership to elevate into local politics.  Following his service in World War II, Young became involved in the labor movement as an organizer with the UAW and National Negro Labor Council, making him the target of federal anti-American investigations.  He was elected to the Michigan Senate in 1964 with Detroit’s East Side as his political base.  He ran for mayor in 1973, and made excessive and brutal police tactics a central focus of the campaign.  Although viewed by many as a polarizing figure who left Detroit in fiscal and social disarray, more recent research strongly suggests the fiscal and social problems preceded Young, who deftly led the city through troubling times.

Private Practice

Germane Barnes.  Barnes is hard to define.  He is an architect, artist, urban designer and city planner.  He’s also an activist, an academic, and, in his current role, a local government manager.  He doesn’t perfectly fit into any of the roles I created for this series; he’s here because I’ve chosen to identify him more as an entrepreneur than anything.  Born and raised in Chicago, Barnes earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Illinois, and a master’s in architecture from Woodbury University.  He’s worked in a variety of capacities where he’s investigated the role of architecture in terms of race, identity and community.  Currently Barnes is the artist-in-residence for the Opa-Locka Community Development Corporation, helping the community of Opa-Locka, FL to forge stronger communities through the effective use of art and design.

Stan Wall.  While Barnes may be hard to define, Stan Wall fits the profile of a professional urbanist.  A licensed professional engineer, Wall is a partner for real estate and economic development consulting firm HR&A in the company’s Washington, DC office.  He joined the firm in 2015.  Prior to that, Wall was the director of real estate and station planning for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), where his role was to support and expand the agency’s transit-oriented development program.  Wall also worked in various real estate capacities with Deloitte Consulting, Jones Lang LaSalle, and the Arup Group, and started his own development firm as well (Wall Development Group).  Wall earned a bachelor’s in architectural engineering from Penn State University, and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Paul Williams (1894-1980).  Known as Hollywood’s “architect to the stars”, Williams left a huge imprint on Southern California architecture and design.  He got his start by winning an architectural competition just three years removed from graduating from the University of Southern California’s architecture program, and started his own practice shortly afterwards.  He soon was called on to design the private homes of many celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Lon Chaney and Barbara Stanwyck, and also designed numerous public buildings such as Los Angeles’ 28th Street YMCA, the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Reno, NV, and the iconic Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport.  Williams became the first black member of the American Institute of Architect’s College of Fellows in 1957.

That concludes the list of all black urbanists nominated for inclusion to this series.  In all, 64 names were submitted to me last November, and it took everything I had to do the research and followup to make this an actual series.  This does not, however, conclude the series.  The final installment will summarize what I’ve learned about the African-American imprint on urbanism — how it’s similar to today’s mainstream urbanism and how it differs.  And there is quite a bit that mainstream urbanism can learn from the African-American urban experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: