Remembering the late Peter Marcuse, an influential professor of urban planning

He Never Stopped

Remembering the late Peter Marcuse, an influential professor of urban planning

Marcuse was a regular writer and editor of books throughout his career. His final volume was In Defense of Housing, coauthored with David J. Madden, and published by Verso in 2016. (Courtesy Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation)

To begin at the end: As the revolutionary urbanist Peter Marcuse took his final breaths on March 4, 2022, he returned to his childhood language to offer his last words to his loved ones. Ich habe etwas zu sagen. (“I have something to say.”) I assume that life did not allow him to complete the thought, but the statement stands nonetheless: Peter Marcuse had something to say, and he said it beautifully and mightily over the course of his 93 years on earth.

Peter was born in Berlin, but when he was six his parents—mathematician Sophie Wertheim and Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse—fled the Nazi regime, taking Peter first to Switzerland and then to the United States. Peter went on to be one of the world’s most important and influential radical urban planning scholars, melding his research interests in housing, land use, and public space with his political commitments to establishing civil rights, building tenant power, and putting an end to homelessness. He helped found important and lasting institutions of left urban planning like Planners for Equal Opportunity (now the Planners Network), and he tirelessly offered his time and energy to grassroots projects for the realization of the right to the city.

I came to know Peter first through his published texts, then as a teacher, and finally as a mutual sounding board and collaborator. In graduate school I encountered his scholarly writing, always theoretically and empirically rigorous yet readable and relatable. In a class on urban sustainability, we read “Sustainability is not enough,” his short essay deconstructing and ultimately smashing the concept of sustainability itself. He argued that the subject was inherently conservative; in order for the earth to survive, our relations to it—and, just as importantly, to one another—would have to be radically altered.

While attending Hunter College, I began working as an organizer at Tenants & Neighbors. In my first weeks on the job I found in a file cabinet a draft of a paper by Peter titled “The Political Economy of Rent Control: Theory and Strategy,” sent for feedback to the organization’s founder in March 1977. In it, Peter argued that rent control as we know it is not a gift from a mythical “benevolent state,” but rather a reflection of the balance of power between landlords, tenants, and the state. Rent controls, he argued, constitute important protections for tenants, but also enable virtually guaranteed steadily rising rents for landlords even when market-rate rents fall—a dynamic borne out in cities like New York during the first year of the pandemic, when rents for market-rate apartments declined but those for rent-stabilized apartments stayed steady or rose.

While working at Tenants & Neighbors, I took Peter’s class “The Housing Question,” co-taught with fellow leftist planner Tom Angotti, at the Brecht Forum, a Marxist adult education center in New York City. Peter had long since retired from Columbia University, but he continued to dedicate himself to educating activists, emerging critics, and curious city dwellers seeking deeper answers about why our cities work the way they do. He didn’t assign many of his own works, but we read a paper of his titled “The Five Lives of Public Housing,” in which Peter demonstrated how the purpose of public housing had shifted over the decades, resulting in changes in its funding levels, design, and tenancy. It was classic Marcuse: He took a piece of the built environment we all thought we knew quite well and showed us that, in fact, it was many other things at once and always the product of ongoing struggle.

Over the past few years, Peter and I would discuss and sometimes collaborate on projects and panels. He would ask me for my thoughts on various subjects, and I would do the same. Whenever I would get an email from him, I’d always ask myself: Why is he talking to me? The truth was that Peter was an incredibly generous person who never stopped teaching, but he also never stopped wondering. He was always looking to both impart his own knowledge and seek inspiration from younger generations. He was a model of how to retire from one’s career without ever ceasing to learn, question, observe, and make offerings.

To return to the end: Peter spoke his last words—“I have something to say”—on March 4. That day was my paternal grandfather’s birthday. He used to joke that it was the only date on the calendar that constituted a full sentence in English: “March forth!” Peter met his wife, Frances, at a May Day march and would continue to be a fixture at protests as long as he could comfortably walk. The date of Peter’s death serves as his final challenge to radical planners, architects, and urbanists: March forth and build a better world than the one we inhabit today.

Samuel Stein is a researcher, writer, advocate, and critic focused on the intersection of real estate and urban planning in New York City and the author of the book Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State.