Interview with John Gilderbloom, winner of the 2022 Robert and Helen Lynd Award for Lifetime Achievement
Against the Odds: The Real Power of Science, Data, and Facts to Win Progressive Victories
John Hans Gilderbloom is a Professor in the Graduate Planning, Public Administra- tion, Public Health, and Urban Affairs program at the University of Louisville. Dr. Gilderbloom is considered one of the most influential figures in urban affairs with an emphasis on sustainability, housing, health and transportation. His fingerprints are all over cities throughout the world. As the winner of the 2022 Robert and Helen Lynd Award for Lifetime Achievement, Dr. Gilderbloom has graciously agreed to be interviewed for our newsletter. Thank you, John, and congratulations!
I am a gunshot survivor. I am grateful to be alive. But I prefer to let the enemies of science know I have learned to thrive. The gunshot resulted in a partial loss of eyesight and hearing, and balance issues. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, despite years of therapy. Before the shooting, The Nation magazine in May 1979 quoted a letter stating that powerful people in the real estate industry were going to “neutralize me” if I continued to advocate for renter rights. I was told I would never survive, yet 43 years later I am thriving with energy, passion, joy, and love. I persisted.
Surviving a gunshot made me fearful but also brave, angry, determined, passionate, and stronger. I was traumatized and because I thought I didn’t have long to live, I worked hard. Even now, I continue to be threatened by people who don’t like my research and have had to relocate several times to protect myself. The threats, though frightening, emboldened me and my team to continue doing research. The Metro Louisville police have investigated several plots against me, and the District Attorney is currently prosecuting someone who is critical of my work and wrote menacing messages on social media stating he wanted to “beat me into an unrecognizable pulp.”
Amitai Etzioni, the eminent sociologist, once asked a colleague who had received tenure what his plans were for the future. When his colleague responded that he could now do whatever he wanted, Etzioni scolded him and told him to do something useful. I am humbled to receive the American Sociological Association lifetime achievement award in Urban and Community studies. I consider myself an example of a sociologist at a non-elite university doing something useful. I think we should use our training in numbers, methods, and statistics to challenge the propaganda, pseudo-science, and falsehoods of the wealthy and powerful who are driven by their own selfish interests.
In 1976, I earned my bachelor’s degree in sociology and entered graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara trained in an array of statistics, evaluation, and methods. I was working as a graduate summer intern in the California Office of Housing and Community Development under Governor Brown. The legislature had just passed a bill banning local adoption of rent control and the governor planned to sign it into law. I was asked to analyze the impact of rent control. My analysis showed that rent control was not going to have a negative effect on the quality and quantity of rental housing, but would provide improved maintenance, plus a modicum of rent relief and protection against unfair evictions.
The governor vetoed the bill, citing my report and the lobbying of labor unions and Tom Hayden’s Economic Democracy group. Landlord lobby groups were furious. I was a hero to tenants and traveled the country organizing tenants for rent control from West Coast cities to Chicago, Baltimore, and New Jersey. I self-published a book, Rent Control: A Source Book, through Foundation for National Progress, the publisher of Mother Jones magazine.
The book was recognized by the media as the “Bible of the renters’ rights movement.” It featured a model rent control law and elegant and powerful short essays by prominent urban writers such as David Harvey, Richard Appelbaum, Dennis Keating, Michael Stone, Chester Hartman, Peter Marcuse, James O’Connor, Cary Lowe, Emily Paradise Achtenberg, John Atlas, Thomas Angotti, and others. It enraged the billion-dollar real estate industry.
The lobbyists representing real estate interests complained to the Reagan administration, demanding that they ban federal block grant funds going to any cities that had regulations covering rents and environmental protections. The National Homeless Coalition, led by Mitch Snyder, asked me to review their proposed legislation and assertions that regulations cause high rents and homelessness. My team methodically destroyed their claims, showing the reports to be filled with falsified data which was unsupportable (two of our articles were later published in the Journal of the American Planning Association). I, along with advocates for the homeless, then went to the Federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) headquarters and met with Secretary Jack Kemp’s executive staff, and President Reagan quickly withdrew support for the legislation.
Today, rent control laws have been enacted in West and East Coast cities and efforts are underway to enact them in middle America. My team and I continued to publish peer-reviewed articles and books on rent control that contradicted economists who claimed the “free market” is the best tool to create affordable housing. We also documented the dreadful housing in Communist countries like Cuba and Soviet Union. Our research continued to be validated and the greatest compliment we received was during the COVID-19 pandemic when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adopted our proposals for rent and eviction controls. My work on rent and eviction controls sparked a movement in the West in which millions of tenants have saved billions of dollars.
I am also known for my work on disability rights, designing housing and neighborhoods that provide freedom of movement. We urged then-President Bush and his associates to propose the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to mandate access to bathrooms, schools, airplanes, restaurants, and workplaces for persons with disabilities. My research team argued for a redesigned city that provides people with disabilities greater access to public transportation, housing, businesses, and recreational and sport facilities. Planning Magazine declared my research on the disabled the needed data and justification for passing the ADA. Later, I was awarded a Republican Congressional medal for promoting freedom and prosperity for those with disabilities.
Louis Brandeis was a powerful Supreme Court Judge from Louisville who embraced science and made the famous statement that, in seeking truth, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” That’s why I named my research center Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods (SUN). SUN brought in $3.5 million dollars in government research and leveraged $100 million dollars in housing and neighborhood development. We used the work of Jane Jacobs, Oscar Newman, and Andres Duany as a guide to make housing safe, healthy, prosperous, and sustainable.
As sociologists Holly Whyte and Harvey Molotch argued, encouraging investment in empty lots, abandoned buildings, and new affordable housing will provide confidence for further investment in poor neighborhoods. As sociologists Holly Whyte and Harvey Molotch argued, encouraging investment in empty lots, abandoned buildings, and new affordable housing will provide confidence for further investment in poor neighborhoods. We have done two major funded research projects on HOPE VI and have been champions of its positive impact on the poor.. We have also created partnerships with non profits to help design and lobby roughly 1,000 affordable houses both newly constructed and renovating abandoned houses. We have also advocated for calm streets and converting multi-lane one way streets into two way that creates greater prosperity, health, and safety in poor neighborhoods. Finally, we have advocated for beauty of historic preservation by organizing chromatic colors on buildings which spark neighborhood rejuvenation. As sociologists Holly Whyte and Harvey Molotch argued, encouraging investment in empty lots, abandoned buildings, and new affordable housing will provide confidence for further investment in poor neighborhoods. We have done two major funded research projects on HOPE VI and have been champions of its impact. We have also created partnerships with non profits to help design and lobby roughly 1,000 affordable houses both newly constructed and renovating abandoned houses. We have also advocated for calm streets and converting multi-lane one way streets into two way that creates greater prosperity, health, and safety in poor neighborhoods. Finally, we have advocated for beauty of historic preservation by organizing chromatic colors on buildings which spark neighborhood rejuvenation. Anti-gentrification activities too often promote segregation over integration.
But perhaps my most consequential research has been showing the connection between pollution and shortened lifespan. Roughly 12 years ago, Louisville’s mayor announced in a report that 60,127 people living in the West End (2/3 of whom were black) lived 10 to 12 years less than people living in more affluent neighborhoods. The mayor blamed it on culture of poverty: guns, poor nutrition, drugs, and smoking. Nothing was mentioned in the report about the 44 chemical factories, coal-fired power plants, and liquor distilleries that contribute to Louisville having some of the dirtiest air in the nation. My research team obtained data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) measuring four kinds of pollution, which was used with the Toxics Release Inventory reports to connect the dots between pollution and low school proficiency scores, shortened lifespan, higher rates of COVID-19, poor housing equity, and neighborhood deterioration.
We also found that Louisville became one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gases of any U.S. city. We published a short piece in the New York Times and Social Policy to bring awareness to this tragic situation. I have published this work in Harvard Journal of Primary Care Review, Lancet, International Journal of Strategic Energy, and Environmental Planning.
As a result of this research, the University of Louisville received million-dollar donations from people aligned with polluting industries to fund an institute that would not bring attention to the city’s pollution problem. A smear campaign was launched against me, and an attempt was made to silence researchers in other environmental centers. This was alarmingly similar to what happened in 1962, when chemical companies in Louisville launched a smear campaign against environmentalist Rachel Carson because her book, Silent Spring, brought attention to the dangers of chemical pollutants, especially DDT. In my case, the university arbitrarily closed SUN and another environmental institute and deleted SUN’s website, which included reports on environmental racism, housing regulations, and disability. Despite winning the Favorite Teacher and COVID-19 Hero awards this year, as well as other teaching awards, I was removed from teaching core courses in Planning and Sustainability, which I have taught for 32 years. Although they have tried to silence me, I won’t back down.
My research has brought about progressive, inclusive, empowering, and sustainable practices. I am proud of making policy recommendations that have improved the lives of tenants, including the disabled, elderly, and poor. My research has been used by activists, elected officials, policymakers, and various local, state, and federal bodies, both in the U.S. and abroad. I worked with the White House and Secretary of Housing and Community Development on national housing and environmental policy, removing urban blight and replacing it with revitalized housing.
What is the secret sauce for winning these victories in tenant and disability rights? How do you make polluters accountable for thousands of premature deaths and the destruction of neighborhoods? Apply rigorous statistics and methods to an urban problem. We conducted primarily large sample comparative and longitudinal studies. Our research was grounded in the work of Emile Durkheim, who studied how suicide rates differed by place and religion. The cross-sectional analysis of Roger Friedland, Harvey Molotch, Gregory Squires, and Richard Appelbaum was also influential. While this research was important and illuminating, today a wealth of data can be accessed from the EPA, CDC, walkability studies, police crime reports, traffic studies, and other sources.
Neighborhood Associates, a nonprofit organization in Washington D.C. under the direction of civil rights leader, Bobby Austin, has provided me with an opportunity to raise money to continue my team’s research (http://www.sunlouisville.org). I intend to teach my Planning and Sustainability courses via Zoom to people around the world and produce two books: Toxic Cities and Habits of Livable Places. In the words of Rachel Carson in her epic book, Silent Spring, “People have the right to know.” I would like to thank my team of graduate students and my many co-authors, especially Gregory Squires, Richard Appelbaum, Wesley Meares, Joe Feagin, Stella Capek, and Ellen Slaten. It is such joy to be doing something useful.