Urban Legend: Earl M. Lewis and the Struggle for Better Government

Photo: Courtesy the family of Earl M. Lewis
Photo: Courtesy the family of Earl M. Lewis

The firefighters were completely lost. Responding to an emergency call from San Antonio's burgeoning northeast sector, a landscape in the mid-1980s that was littered with quickly thrown together cul-de-sac neighborhoods, they could not locate the street on any of the physical maps in their possession. They radioed dispatch but no officer there could locate the address either. Fortunately, the incident did not have a tragic end, but it underscored how unplanned development had outstripped the community's capacity to enact any kind of regulatory control over its outward thrust; there was no policy oversight. San Antonio had mislaid itself.

Earl Lewis kept trying to guide the city back home. Methodical and detail oriented, a savvy politico and shrewd negotiator, teacher, and reformer, Lewis was then a legendary member of the Trinity University faculty.

He had grown up in the Jim-Crow South. A Mississippi native, he studied at Tougaloo College, and received advanced degrees from the University of Chicago. Out of personal conviction and stymied by academic segregation, Earl taught for many years at another historically black college, Prairie View A & M before moving to San Antonio in 1968, where he helped integrate Trinity's faculty. As founding chair of the university's Urban Studies program, which radically diversified the once-largely white institution, Earl pushed the campus into a brave new world. His certitude helped it get over its uncertainty.

I don't remember our first meeting, but have a sharp memory of what I think was our most important. Around the time those firefighters got trapped in a maze of new construction, Earl walked into my office unannounced, a sheaf of papers in his hands. As he scrolled and unscrolled them, tilted his head and let a small smile play across his face, he wondered if I would do him a favor.

It was hard, really hard to say no to Earl. It's just as difficult to say goodbye: his death on October 13, at 92, marks the passing of a seminal figure in the lives of so many, students and teachers alike.

I did not know about his extensive influence at that point -- all I recall is wondering why this beguilingly canny colleague stopped by to chat. A very junior member of the faculty, confronted with full professors in my home department trying to show me the door, I could not imagine what I could offer Earl, a man who made networking an art form.

Through his contacts he had heard of my situation, alluded to it obliquely, but framed his request not as a lifeline (though it would prove to be one) rather as a help to him: would I consider teaching a class in urban history for a new undergraduate major in Urban Studies?

At that time the program was for graduate students only, and it had been training some of the brightest minds for more than a decade. As its graduates fanned out across Texas, or headed west or east, they took up positions as city planners and managers in nearly every major city in the nation's fastest-growing region stretching from San Diego to Atlanta.

Their individual lives were forever altered. "Professionally, I couldn't tell begin to tell you how many doors the program opened for me," one of them told me. "If it weren't for Earl Lewis and Trinity University, I could not have broken that ground. It would have been virtually impossible."

They broke ground collectively, too. Taught to think critically about power dynamics and racial and ethnic discrimination that plagued urban governance and developmental schemes, they were educated as well about the critical need for equal access to public transportation, affordable housing, and clean water. As they became advocates for inclusive management and transparent decision-making, these women and men helped build more responsive county commissions, city halls, and town councils, or pursued these same ends at the state and federal levels.

No community felt their force more fully than San Antonio. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the precise moment when Latino organizers started to challenge the closed-door, Anglo-dominated politics of the Alamo City, a steady stream of Trinity Urban Studies grads, many of whom hailed from west-side barrios rising up against decades of neglect, disdain, and disenfranchisement, were entering local government.

Story continues below

From the inside, they opened up what had been a buttoned-down old-boys' club. In conjunction with successful legal challenges that activists leveled against the city council's system of at-large elections, a process that had insured an almost all-white political body, these internal change agents made public hearings public.

They represented what Earl Lewis and his colleagues had demanded of them: they must work for and be accountable to all residents, always. Like their mentor, they believed in the efficacy of government to make cities more habitable and just.

In time, so many of them rose through the ranks, becoming heads of departments and city managers, that they spoke of themselves affectionately as the "Trinity Mafia," yet another tribute to Earl's enduring effect.

Sensing that undergraduates were an untapped pool of recruits, and in response to curricular changes then underway at the university, Earl began to devise a new major. That's when he showed up at my door; the ensuing conversation fundamentally altered what and how I taught, as well as the subject of my research and writing.

Although my graduate work was in intellectual and cultural history, I had long been riveted by the surging nature of urban life. Having grown up just outside New York City, and later having lived in greater Los Angeles while an undergraduate at Pitzer College, it was hard to miss the sheer clout of urban economies and city politics: as in Rome so in the United States -- all roads led to the metropolitan core.

Earl gave me an opportunity to find out what that meant in and across time. The course that I started teaching for his program was called The City in History, a studied homage to Lewis Mumford's magnificent book by the same name. The class' narrative arc moved from the Tower of Babel to the City of Angels, from Genesis to Reyner Banham's "Los Angeles: Architecture of Four Ecologies" (later to be replaced with Mike Davis' "City of Quartz," then his "Ecology of Fear," and now Robert Gottlieb's "Reinventing Los Angeles"). In between these bookends, we probed how preindustrial cities functioned and subsequently were blown apart by the industrial revolution and its accompanying tectonic shift in class, wealth, and status. This new social structure itself would be tested in the tumult of post-industrialization.

These readings had an unintended impact -- they propelled me out of the library and into the community. With colleagues in the Urban Studies program, I focused on the place where we lived, trying to address the historical context for and present-day manifestations of San Antonio's social tensions, environmental injustices, and economic disparities.

Those academic pursuits also gave birth to a greater civic engagement. I served on a number of the city's advisory committees and penned an increasing number of commentaries for local newspapers about the strains that were resulting from the San Antonio's booming development and the glaring discrepancies between those who benefited from this growth and those who did not. Whatever readers may have thought of these musings, I was (and still am) hooked by the chance to think out loud about urban environments and the political structures and natural systems in which they operate.

Earl Lewis would never have wanted credit for my fascinations. Yet I am deeply aware that had he not shown up in my office when he did, had he not asked me to help him, I would not have found myself.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading