My friend Steve’s father Hugh Mields and his friend William K. Brussat (my dad) were city planners. Steve, who is both a philatelist and a fenestration cleanliness engineer, recently sent me an envelope postmarked Washington, D.C., Oct. 2, 1967, and stamped “First Day of Issue” in honor of the 50th anniversary of the American Institute of Planners. I don’t know whether this envelope was ever actually mailed, but it has four 5¢ stamps illustrated with the design of what looks like a plan for urban renewal. “Plan for Better Cities” is emblazoned in each stamp’s upper left-hand corner.
This is not funny, but the engraving on the left side of the “First Day” envelope is. In addition to celebrating the AIP (1917-1967), it reads “United States Urban Planning: Rehabilitating America’s Cities.” Above that is a small engraving of seven planners sitting or standing around a table with a plan. An engraving of the plan is above that. It shows a typical faceless modern collection of rectangular buildings arrayed above a massive semicircular parking garage. Above and in back of the plan is a photograph which we are supposed to understand is an aerial view of the urban setting into which the plan will be inserted.
Why is this funny? Well, it’s not really, but celebrating the accomplishments of what American planners have done to cities throughout the nation strikes me as just this side of foolishness, and not just in retrospect. It is difficult to imagine that planners really thought that this sort of thing would improve America, and yet it surely was believed by planners such as my dad and Steve’s. Hugh was involved in the Model Cities program and had a major hand in developing the “new town” of Reston, Va.* My grandmother moved there from the Bronx into a tower full of seniors. Her younger daughter Mona (my mom) and dad and we three boys used to visit her out there frequently, driving through the farmland that used to surround Reston. We used to drive past the CIA on Route 123 before there was a sign saying what it was. Hugh and Irene moved out to Reston, too, but Steve and the two elder of his sisters used to drive back to Washington at every opportunity to see their friends from the neighborhood and from their schools. In a couple of years they all moved back to D.C. I don’t believe I have a right to say they hated Reston but they could not stand living out there.
Likewise, I haven’t the history of long conversation with my dad about his career. He died in 1978. Hugh died in 1995. I have no idea what they thought of modern architecture. In fact, I don’t want to know. I did enjoy getting the two of them back together in a column I wrote for the Providence Journal after Hugh died, in which I wondered what influence my dad and Hugh might have had on my architectural tastes. We lived in relatively modest traditional houses on a traditiional street in Cleveland Park. Our house, on Rodman Street, was furnished from a store called Scan. You can imagine what it was like. And I liked it. I still do like that sort of sleek interior design (it is inside, after all, not outside – a private matter altogether). Steve, my brother Guy and I used to take the L4 down to the Federal Triangle and pass by the Commerce Department and the Labor Department – FDR classicism – on the way to visit museums on the mall. I used to sit on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gaze down past the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol. These were my influences. I could not connect the dots with my dad or Steve’s.
Well, it turns out that this post is not all that funny. Oh well. It does bring up wonderful memories for me if not for readers. It was sonic to have such great dads (and moms, too, I hasten to add). I will reprint the column of the two dads.
* Claudia Kedda, one of Steve Mields’s three sisters, who has spent her career in public and private housing and community-development organizations, wrote in to say that her father was not involved in the development of Reston, which was a privately developed New Town near (if not now within) the vast commercial megaplex known as Tyson’s Corner.