Thabit, Walter 1921-2005

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Thabit, Walter 1921-2005


Born December 20, 1921, in Brooklyn, NY; died March 15, 2005; son of Albert (a merchant) and Shukrie (a realtor; maiden name, Swyden) Thabit; married Frances Thargay, May 16, 1954 (marriage ended March 20, 1978); married Frances Goldin (a literary agent); children: Darius, Alia, Nikolai, Peavo.Education: Brooklyn College (now of the City University of New York), B.A., 1948; New School for Social Research, M.A., 1952; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, M.C.P., 1953. Religion: Syrian Orthodox.


Manager of family real estate holdings in the 1940s; American Institute of Architects, New Yorkchapter, research director of committee on housing, 1952-53; Department of City Planning, New York, NY, planning analyst, 1953-54; Department of City Planning, Baltimore, MD, director of master plan section, 1954-58; owner of a planning consulting firm, 1959—. Planners for Equal Opportunity, principal founding member, 1964, and past president; Landmarks Preservation Commission, senior planner, 1976-80; New York City Department of Transportation, associate city planner, director of planning for the handicapped, director of pedestrian planning and graphics, and director of ferry planning, between 1980 and 1988. Faculty member at New School for Social Research, Hunter College of the City University of New York, Long Island University, McCoy College, and Johns Hopkins University; public speaker to community groups and others.


Elliot Wilensky Award, 1992, for a single-room occupancy study; Honor Award for Lifetime Achievement in Planning, Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility, 1994.


How East New York Became a Ghetto, foreword by Frances Fox Piven, New York University Press (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor of more than one hundred articles and reviews to magazines and newspapers, including Journal of the American Institute of Planners, Traffic Quarterly, American City, New York Times, and Village Voice.


Walter Thabit told CA: "I have always written a great deal. As a city planner and consultant, I have written perhaps fifty to one hundred reports on various aspects of housing, renewal, community planning, transportation, and a multitude of other subjects. These are generally of interest to the communities, agencies, or clients involved, and are printed in from a dozen to several hundred copies. "In addition to this professional reporting, I have written occasionally about the planning process and planning issues for the general public. I have also done a good deal of reviewing planning and other books, some for planning journals, but also for alternative publications such as the Village Voice.

"So, I have this background in writing. My book is an outgrowth of my advocacy planning work over the years, starting in the earliest days of the 1950s. I was studying occupancy changes on the upper west side of Manhattan. Part of that study took me to review population shifts in Manhattan over the decades. Amazingly, I found that half a million peopled lived south of Canal Street in the 1850s. By the early 1900s, the financial district, port and railroad development, industrial lofts, and other business and industrial development had driven out all but a few thousand inhabitants. Manhattan once had 2,300,000 inhabitants, now fewer than a million-and-a-half, the rest succumbing to the waves of business and cultural expansion.

"The displacement of people during this frenzied growth had catastrophic results. During most of it, dwellers had few rights of tenure and were simply evicted when the land was needed for ‘higher and better’ uses. As time went on, I experienced similar displacement strategies at work in and near the local communities for which I worked. In many cases, whites were being hounded out of their communities to make way for blacks who were being channeled into them. In other cases, communities (often mostly black) were being threatened with urban redevelopment—replacing their housing with luxury housing for the upper-income market.

"Long before my retirement, I began to play with these elements and planned to write a broad critique of these destructive approaches to development. My earliest efforts were titled ‘The Forces of Community Destruction.’ Once I did retire, I thought to apply for a Guggenheim fellowship to do such a book, but on the advice of an old friend, Frances Piven, decided to focus on the East New York experience. It was a good decision. I did not get the Guggenheim, but I did finish the book, even though it took six years."



City Limits, September-October, 2003, Hakim Hasan, review of How East New York Became a Ghetto,p. 36.

Library Journal, September 15, 2003, Suzanne W. Wood, review of How East New York Became a Ghetto, p. 79.

Planning, March, 2004, Harold Henderson, review ofHow East New York Became a Ghetto, p. 41.