A Mentor, Confidant, and Friend
Over the next several days Progressive City will be posting a series of tributes to Peter Marcuse (1928-2022), influential planning scholar, practitioner, and activist. Peter was a long-time Planners Network member and founding editor of Progressive City: Radical Alternatives online magazine and Progressive Planning magazine (our print predecessor).
Peter Marcuse, a professor emeritus at Columbia University, lawyer and urban planner passed away on March 4, 2022 at his California home. This was a huge loss for me personally. I worked on several projects with Peter and his students and he supported much of the work that I was involved in with Picture the Homeless and the work of Take Back the Land.
My very first public speaking engagement was in 2007. I was on a panel at Columbia University with Peter, Brenda Stokley, a longtime leader and organizer with the municipal workers union in New York City, and Ed Ott, who was the director of the Central Labor Council at the time. Having recently left the New York City shelter system some six months earlier, I found myself among this group of esteemed speakers who were very knowledgeable on the issue of affordable housing in New York City. I was extremely nervous and perspiration was staining my clothing. To add to my nervousness the group had me speak last. When my turn came I gave my statement and received a standing ovation. Peter quietly placed his hand on my thigh and whispered in my ear, “great job,” and I suddenly felt as if my father or grandfather had approved my message. I was suddenly accepted in the hallowed halls of Columbia University and Peter Marcuse had stamped me with “credibility.”
While at that point I knew nothing of Peter’s dad, Herbert Marcuse, I learned over the years after reading books by father and son their work and roles in academia and society shared many similarities. Both focused on social justice and supporting community struggles related to housing, economic injustice while offering strong critiques of capitalism.
I learned firsthand that Peter could be seen as a radical who almost bordered on anarchy. In 2008 Peter organized the Right to the City (RTC) reading group, with Neil Smith, Tom Angotti and David Harvey. The idea was for these academics to work with members of the New York City chapter of the Right to the City Alliance. The Alliance was made up of many of the organizations that were fighting for the right to housing. I represented Picture the Homeless at the RTC meetings. The very first meeting was an examination of the recently completed RTC platform, which we hoped to present to the New York City Council and then-Mayor Bloomberg. I was the only member of the alliance to attend the meeting. While we were getting settled and waiting for others to arrive, Peter began reading the platform and suddenly had a problem with a specific line text in the platform. Peter looked at me and said, “Rob, you know what’s wrong with this platform? You all say here you will ask Mayor Bloomberg! You guys shouldn’t ask him – you tell him!”
In 2010, during the early days of the Take Back the Land (TBTL) work, Peter met with co-founder Max Rameau and me to discuss the goals and objectives of TBTL. Peter was fascinated with this idea of demanding banks return foreclosed homes to communities in the form of community land trusts. In fact, as a visiting scholar at Columbia, Peter‘s students worked with Max and me to create a land trust model that we could share around the country with the different TBTL local action groups.
At an event in 2014 with Bronx Legal Services, Helena Wong, who was the executive director of CAAAV, and I were representing community-based organizations with legal services lawyers and policymakers. Many of the legal services representatives shared thoughts on reforming the system while Helena and I spoke of changing a system that had been ineffective for years when it comes to housing low-income and homeless people. Midway through the event I saw Peter get up and leave. Later that evening I received a voicemail message from Peter. He asked, “hey Rob, is the only thing people are interested in is reforming the system? Nobody wants to transform the system?”
Peter traveled to Israel and Palestine in 2015 and on the trip he took a hard fall. Upon his return and visiting his physician, Peter was advised to use a cane. He refused. He would not be seen by anyone using a cane to get around. Then one night his lovely wife Frances called me and asked me to speak with Peter and advise him to use a cane. Frances said “Rob, since I first met you I’ve always seen you walking with a cane. Can you please talk to him and tell him it’s in his best interest to use a cane?” I did what Frances asked and Peter used a cane from that point forward. Let’s just say it was a mutual respect for one another.
I lost a mentor, a confidant, a teacher and a friend. He was brilliant, radical and had anarchist tendencies. Peter, we had a respect and trust for one another, and I will miss you dearly. R.I.P. Peter.
Rob Robinson is a formerly homeless community organizer and activist based in New York City. His work focuses on changing people’s fundamental relationship to land and housing. He works with social movements around the world including the Movement of People Affected by Dams in Brazil (MAB), the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil (MST), Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa (the Shackdwellers movement) and the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages in Spain (the PAH). Rob is the USA-Canada Coordinator of International Alliance of Inhabitants, an alliance of 12,000 members worldwide which supports a Zero Evictions Platform.