Peter Marcuse passed away quietly at home at Vista del Monte in Santa Barbara on March 4, 2022, attended by his wife Frances and sons Andrew and Harold. His 93 years on planet earth came to an end after a fall in which he broke several ribs, followed by a short but debilitating stay in Covid-era hospital isolation.
Peter was born in Berlin in November 1928, shortly before the Great Depression reached Europe, Germany in particular. His parents had met as students at Freiburg University, to which they returned so that Herbert could attain the qualification for an academic career. Shortly after Hitler came to power the family relocated to Switzerland, then in 1934 immigrated to the U.S. Peter attended the Sidwell Friends School in Bethesda, Maryland, then Harvard College, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1948. That same year he met his future wife at a May Day rally in New York, where they carried the “capitalist dragon.” He attended Yale Law School, earning his J.D. in 1952, and practiced law for 20 years in New Haven and Waterbury, Connecticut, where his three children were born in 1953, 1957 and 1965. He served as the Majority Leader of the Waterbury Board of Aldermen (City Council) from 1959 to 1963, and was a member of the Waterbury City Plan Commission from 1964 to 1968. Participation in the “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi in July 1964 focused his engagement even more strongly towards social justice issues, as a series of newspaper reports documents. He earned Master’s degrees at Columbia in Public Law and Government in 1963, and at Yale in Urban Studies in 1968.
In 1968 he drove cross-country with his family to Berkeley to obtain a PhD in the emerging field of urban planning. After completing his thesis on the legal and financial implications of home ownership for low income families in 1972, he was hired by the UCLA planning department. In Los Angeles he joined and served as president of the city’s planning commission, before returning east to become the director of Columbia’s planning program in 1975. He dedicated his legal expertise to social justice causes, advocating radical solutions to realize a more just society. He always combined his academic work with civic engagement, serving on and chairing a community board in Manhattan, as well as on the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1978 he led New York City’s triennial study of housing conditions. Peter not only gathered the extensive statistical data required, but used the report to highlight how the city’s housing market increased inequality.
Peter was known for giving names to emerging trends, and sharpening conceptual distinctions. For example he was one of the first to connect the term gentrification to abandonment and poverty, and he distinguished between different meanings of “ghettoization,” namely the intentional, forced segregation of marginalized groups (“ghetto”), vs. the voluntary spatial concentration of a group (“enclave”), vs. protected “citadels” created by dominant groups to protect their superior status. He also categorized different types of planning: technicist, social reform, and social justice. In one of his last essays he coined various new names for positive forms of gerrymandering, such as social-mandering, or community-directed “co-mandering.” His practical work for government entities led him to the insight that technical analyses were not used to develop socially just policies, but rather served to make the existing economic, social and political order run smoothly. Not wanting to be limited by the merely possible, he defined “transformative planning” as “an approach combining what can be done now with raising what should be done in the future.”
In the 1980s he began to compare the provision of public, affordable housing in the US with West and East German cities, first in Frankfurt in 1981-82. He was conducting research in Weimar and East Berlin in 1989-90 when the Berlin Wall fell, and published his personal and political reflections, including his brief detainment by the Stasi, in his 1991 book Missing Marx–a play on words, as many East Germans missed West German Deutschmarks more than trying to build a truly Marxian society. Intermingled with personal anecdotes and analyses of East German jokes he laid out the successes and failures of the “real existing” socialist system. In 1999 and 2002 he co-edited collections on the partitioning of urban space, and on the new spatial order of globalizing cities. An award-winning educator, his former students, many of them by then colleagues, celebrated his 80th birthday with a conference in his honor in Berlin in 2008.
After retiring from teaching in 2003 he continued to publish, for instance in 2009 an anthology of works by some of his students, Searching for the Just City: Debates in Urban Theory and Practice; in 2011 Cities for People, Not for Profit, and in 2016 In Defense of Housing. In 2010 he began a blog, “Critical planning and other thoughts,” which grew to 150 posts by late 2021. Since 2005 he was also involved with the founding of a professional society interested in developing and disseminating the ideas of his father, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, critiquing capitalist systems and exploring ways an equitable, non-utopian utopia could be realized.
In 2017 he and Frances moved to Santa Barbara, California, where they found a welcoming and stimulating community at Vista del Monte. Peter was an engaged participant in a Monday evening discussion group, a Tuesday current events class, at play reading on Thursdays, and at Shabbat on Fridays. He was constantly searching for occasions to discuss solutions to social problems, and enjoyed expressing himself in poetry and limericks. His last words, reverting to the language of his early childhood, were “Ich habe etwas zu sagen” (I have something to say). Unfortunately the inveterate communicator was no longer able to tell us what that “something” was. However one of his last poems, dictated shortly after he came home from the hospital, expresses how much the active struggle to realize a liberated society gave meaning to his life:
To be or not to be, how did you know?
But knowing is such past stuff
That will not last.
Yet leaving it can also be quite rough.
To admire and then retire
Will not be enough.
Is life just there to light a fire, and then go?
Or must it be blow after blow?
To tell the truth we’ll never know,
And life won’t stand still and let you parse its flow.
To be, but also to be free,
With, but also against the flow.
But is not all life a struggle to be free?
Does not-being mean just not being “there”?
Or will there always be still others who do care?
Or can we just wait and see —
Will there be others just like you and me?
As we continue that struggle to create a more just society in this earthly realm, we wish him peace in the great beyond, and thank him for his tireless work trying to steer our world towards civic justice in the here and now.