The City Is Their Laboratory

Pratt students invent the next New York—for real.

"Everybody in that room was kind of angry with the Bloomberg administration's plan to drop an emerald city in-between Flushing and Corona," says Lander. Past that resentment, however, things aren't so clear cut. A large part of the Pratt Center's job is to help figure out what community members want for Willets Point, but there's conflict between Iron Triangle businesses, who reject any plan to displace them, and residents of surrounding neighborhoods, who want to make sure new development would include opportunities for them.

"People feel a desperate need for affordable housing, they want good jobs, and they want less-crowded schools," says Lander. "So if development at Willets Point were going to give them those things, they might be enthusiastic about it.

"Obviously those are both genuine Queens-rooted community perspectives. Of course, they're different ones, so we're trying to figure out how to deal with that."

Cypress Hills is a mash-up of cozy residential lanes and chaotic commercial strips.
photo: Willie Davis/Veras
Cypress Hills is a mash-up of cozy residential lanes and chaotic commercial strips.

Getting to play a part in weighty, real- world matters is a major factor for students like Justin Kray.

Working construction for his father in and around Boston, where he grew up, Kray saw firsthand the disparities in housing conditions for the area's rich and poor. Deciding to pursue a graduate degree in planning, he looked at schools from Harvard to the University of Washington before choosing Pratt's three-year city and regional planning program, in large part because of the Pratt Center for Community Development.

"It kind of has its hands in the soil, so to speak, in keeping inner-city neighborhoods viable," Kray says. "I just wanted to jump in, and that was what Pratt allowed me to do."

Ryan Sharp is following a similar path. With a bachelor's degree in public administration from Florida International University in Miami, Sharp narrowed his search for a graduate school to the University of Pennsylvania and Pratt Institute, settling on Pratt because of its academic philosophy as well as its location.

"If you want to get involved in urban studies, New York is the mecca for that, at least in North America," says Sharp, who will enter Pratt's city and regional planning master's program this fall. "Pratt has a practical focus in their urban planning program. They encourage going out in the community and actually learning how to do things and galvanizing people."

Sharp knows something about community involvement, having spent some of his time in South Florida writing for a development and transportation blog called Transit Miami. He hopes to get familiar with street-level New York through the work of the Pratt Center, where he has applied for an internship.

"What I like about Pratt Center is they don't necessarily focus on traditional preservation techniques," says Tauber. "It's more about preserving the feel of neighborhoods, rather than individual buildings."

Pratt Center interns go on to work for government planning departments, private planning firms, nonprofit developers, or other public-interest groups. Most are students at Pratt Institute, but others come from different schools, both inside and outside the city. Hunter College offers a similar program, the Center for Community Planning and Development, with recent studio courses analyzing the controversial Atlantic Yards project and developing a plan for senior housing in Williamsburg.

"Whatever kind of professional planning career you have, working in diverse communities, seeing things from a range of perspectives, and coming to appreciate this kind of public interest and social justice work more deeply, is valuable," says Lander. "People find that there's opportunities to incorporate that perspective into their work wherever they are."

For her part, Tauber wants to put her Pratt experience toward a position that integrates public planning and preservation. She's particularly interested in working in areas of the city not commonly considered aesthetically important.

"It feels more rewarding to bring these types of issues to communities that aren't thinking about it quite as much," Tauber says, "because their places are just as valuable as everyone else's."

Since many of its staff also teach at Pratt Institute, Center projects regularly carry over into graduate coursework. Planning and historic preservation students often come together in studios, where a neighborhood such as Cypress Hills serves as a real-world lab.

"Even if you never set foot in here as an intern, you might have a faculty member who's bringing what they do in the Pratt Center into the classroom," says Laura Wolf-Powers, assistant professor and chair of Pratt Institute's Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment. "The center could not do the work that it does in the community without the students."

Looking for places to put affordable housing, Kray found a record shop,crouched beneath the elevated J train, that sells Burning Spear on vinyl.
photo: Willie Davis/Veras
Their contributions aren't confined to New York. Summer studios are held in Panama, where this year students worked with local professionals and civic groups to save an ecologically unique area from suburban-style development. Meanwhile, the center is coordinating a project funded by a $266,000 Federal Housing and Urban Development grant to help plan and develop "model blocks" in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The grant represents a portion of millions of dollars in HUD funds issued through the Universities Rebuilding America Partnership, a program established in November 2005 to engage colleges and universities in rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Over a hundred students are involved in the work, which has encompassed 10 studio classes over one and a half years. The students' findings will be submitted to Pratt's client in New Orleans, the nonprofit ACORN Housing Corporation, which assists low- and moderate-income home buyers.

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