By Cory Phare
From real estate developer to film producer, sociologist and author, Philip Hart, Ph.D., has a prolific and varied track record of successful accomplishments.
But the 2018 Rachel B. Noel Distinguished Visiting Professor draws early insight from an unlikely arena: a basketball court in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood.
“When I was in sixth grade Columbine Elementary School, we didn’t have our own gym,” said Hart. “So our basketball team had to play at Stedman Elementary, which hadn’t yet racially integrated."
The Columbine Cardinals, who were undefeated at the time, found themselves behind at the end of the third quarter to the other all-white team. That’s when the host school’s referee attempted to inexplicably end the game – before a father of Hart’s friend called out the foul and the squad rallied for a comeback.
“We came together as a team, and that was a life lesson that stuck with me,” said Hart.
“Things aren’t always going to be fair, so in those circumstances you have to ask yourself, ‘How am I going to respond? What can I do to intervene and create better, more equitable circumstances?’”
For Hart, questions like these are the foundation of an unconventional yet complimentary career trajectory. His father had a career in housing as manager of the Platt Valley Public Housing, where they lived, and later as deputy with the Denver Housing Authority.
And, with his mother as one of the first African-American teachers in Denver in the 1950s, applying the scholarship of communities of people, as professor of sociology and director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture at University of Massachusetts Boston from 1974 to 2002, was a logical confluence.
“In urban planning and as a real estate developer, you want to understand individuals and groups that make use of buildings,” said Hart.
“It’s examining the potential to design what’s functional, comfortable and providing space to live, work and play.”
A key piece of this is dealing with structural inequalities, as Hart noted the work of W.E.B. Du Bois (in particular “The Souls of Black Folk”) and post-WWII developments that were exclusionary to communities of color.
“The whole urban planning context, to some extent in the suburbs but especially in urban areas, was defined by the color line,” he said. “To this day, there’s a reluctance to address head-on how issues like race and racism link back to slavery, influencing how neighborhoods have developed; of the impact that challenge and lack of investment has on a place.”
This underscores the challenges of modern-day urban planning – but Hart also sees opportunity to empower a community.
In inner-city Boston in the 1970s, he and business partner Marvin Gilmore decided to focus on a predominantly African-American part of town where industry was leaving. Their work resulted an overall economic development plan with the city. And in conjunction with support from the U.S. Department of Commerce for a feasibility study and a Title IX grant for infrastructure, they attracted Digital Equipment Corporation, a major American computer company, as an anchor tenant for a 45-acre urban industrial park that provided transformational to the surrounding community.
Hart’s currently working with Los Angeles county as a planner to create up to nine bioscience hubs. Many of the industry-specific clusters are slated to be in lower income communities of color to replicate the same opportunities that resulted from a sociological-framed approach to development.
“In Boston, we knew we wanted to focus on urban development, so we anchored it with a Fortune 500 tech company with an eye to the future,” said Hart.
“From marshalling resources to identifying partners and carrying out the implementation, the biggest thing is to start with a plan – then turn it into action.”
Important questions to ask, as anyone who’s tried to count the number of cranes currently a part of – and building – the Denver skyline.
As for Hart, it’s an issue that comes full-circle, as his childhood neighborhood of Five Points is currently experiencing challenges of affordability and access.
“The primary problems associated with gentrification are people who are displaced or feel like they’re getting pushed out,” he said. “And for the most part, women and people of color aren’t involved in the development.”
Although these problems aren’t unique to Denver, for Hart, the answers to them can be traced back to the same spirit of inquiry – and team-based approach to finding solutions – inspired on a Park Hill basketball court years ago.
“Whenever there’s an economic boom, a lot of these challenges are largely inevitable,” he said.
“So the question becomes ‘How do you mitigate this? How do you have communities participate in the growth so everyone shares the prosperity?’”
Rachel B. Noel’s legacy continues as we celebrate the 37th year of the Rachel B. Noel Distinguished Visiting Professorship. Visit the website to learn more about community events taking place from Sunday, March 11 through Tuesday, March 13.
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