ECCO bene: Milton Kotler is Father of ANCs and the Neighborhood Government Movement — a Perspective Best Viewed from the Front Porch
Interviewee: Milton Kotler
Date: August 25, 2012
Interviewed and transcribed (from audio recording) by: Carl Lankowski
Location: Kotler residence in Chevy Chase DC
Q: Tell us about your origins.
MK: I was born of wonderful parents in Chicago in 1935, so that makes me 77.
Q: What date?
MK: March 15th, the Ides of March.
Q: What part of Chicago was that?
MK: The northwest side, Humboldt Park, the Saul Bellows area. It was a wonderful neighborhood. We had Humboldt Park where we used to sleep in the summer, before air conditioning. It was a mixed Jewish, Polish, Czech neighborhood. A lot of diversity, a tense measure of anti-Semitism. By and large, a fun place to be young.
Q: Where did your parents come from?
MK: My parents came from Russia. My paternal grandfather came to the U.S. in 1913 to prepare to bring his wife and children. Then WWI war broke out; then the Revolution; and then the Civil war. He was finally able to send an agent to retrieve his wife and children in 1922.
Q: Where were they?
MK: They were in Nezhin, in the Ukraine. My mother came around the same time—1922—from Berdichev, also in the Ukraine. Her aunts were in Chicago. Her mother had died of breast cancer. Her father remarried—a woman with her own children. Too many children and too little means. He lost his cigarette factory in the turmoil. He arranged with his sisters in Chicago to bring over my mother, her sibling sister and brother. An agent was sent and they got through over the border and to Hamburg and then to America. My parents met and married in Chicago. They raised a family with three boys: my older brother Phillip, who is alive and kicking; yours truly and my younger brother Neil who is now deceased.
Q: Neil was in the Washington area, right?
MK: Yes. Neil had a career in Congress as a Congressional aide to Congressman Conyers for many years; then he went on to work at the Smithsonian until he retired.
Q: How about Phillip?
MK: Phillip is still professor of Marketing at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. He is recognized as the world’s leading Marketing guru, still active, writing books—as a matter of fact, we have just completed a book together that will be out in December, called Market your Way to Growth.
Q: What are your most compelling memories of Chicago, aside from your experience at the University of Chicago?
MK: There is so much to tell. Allow me a couple of anecdotes that highlight the hard edge of this great city. One enduring impression comes from my Bar Mitzvah party at the Congress Hotel. My father introduced me to Mr. Grannit, the business agent for his merchant association. He said: “Grannit, show Mickey what you have.” So Grannit opened his double-breasted suit jacket and I saw a gun in a holster. That was how business was done in Chicago. The association protected my father’s businesses in their several locations. There were an awful lot of fires in Chicago in those days when someone tried to open a business in the territory of someone who belonged to the association.
When I was 16 and got my driver’s license, my father took a five-dollar bill and paper-clipped it to my license card. He told me that if an officer ever stops you for a traffic violation give him your license and be sure that the $5 is clipped to it. Sure enough, I was stopped. The cop was pleasant; he took the $5 and I had no problem. That was Chicago in those days. I miss it very much. It was then and remains today a very corrupt city, notwithstanding all of its great institutions and businesses.
My daughter lives there. My brother still has a home on the north shore of Chicago. My mother lived the rest of her life in Chicago after my father’s death. So, I have family in Chicago and love the memories of Chicago. I have always loved Chicago.
Q: Let’s jump to your experience at the University of Chicago.
MK: I was at Roosevelt High School. In those days there was open selection of public high schools. The high schools divided themselves along ethnic lines. Roosevelt was a Jewish high school on the north side. A lot of smart kids went there. I was a debater in high school. My brother, who had just transferred from DePaul to the University of Chicago, urged me to apply as an early entrant to the University College. At that time, the University College took high school students after their sophomore year if they passed a qualifying exam. I had always wanted to go to Northwestern, because at that time the family had moved to the north side. I was hoping to enroll in the business school there. I had a good start in the classics, thanks to the influence of my brother, who insisted with several of his friends on organizing a Great Books club when we were still in grammar school. I grew up in that environment, also as a reader and violinist. Yet, I liked the idea of action. Just then my speech teacher recommended me to Northwestern National Summer High School Institute of Speech – forensics, drama, and radio. I was accepted and met kids from all over the country, my first exposure of this kind. That same summer I received my acceptance to the University of Chicago with a scholarship. I never returned to high school but went straight to the University of Chicago.
The College of the University of Chicago was an amazing experience. There I was at 16, thrust into this classical education. Fortunately I had been somewhat prepared by Phillip’s tutelage. Still, it was very difficult. This was under Hutchins’ presidency when the College was a four year liberal arts program, with no electives or specialization. Everyone had the same curriculum and read the same treatises.
Q: What years were those?
MK: That was 1951. I finished my BA in 1954 after placing out of one year’s work. There I was at age 16 reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Laplace’s Astronomy, tearfully struggling with this enormously difficult stuff. There were no textbooks, just treatises and classroom dialogue. The whole system was based on dialogue with your professors in small tutorial classes. Classroom attendance was not required. There was one exam at the end of the year for each course, a six hour comprehensive. That was the only thing that counted for your grade. A very rigorous and wonderful education with a lot of time to play bridge and billiards. I feel blessed to this day for it. If you read Aristotle’s Metaphysics at age 16, you can pretty much handle any new knowledge and understanding problem that comes your way later in life. If you are in my kind of business, consulting across different industries, you cannot afford to be scared of new knowledge.
After finishing college, I went into the Political Science department and got my Masters degree. At that time the U of C Political Science Department did not recognize the College degree. There was a running war between Hutchins and the Graduate departments. So I entered a three-year Masters program. I finished that in 1957 and then went to the UC law school from 1957-1959. I dropped out at the end of my second year. I hated law school. I didn’t like case analytics. I think I was just too educated for law school. I had too much dialectical training to accept precedentiary evidence.
I was subject to the draft at that point, so I joined the Air National Guard, did basic training, then returned to the University to pursue a PhD from 1960-1963. During that period I also taught in the Chicago City College system to make some money. I had scholarships and fellowships at U of C for all twelve years I was there, but I needed cash. In 1962, my friend from my UC dormitory Marc Raskin was in Washington DC, and starting the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). He wanted me to join the new Institute. He and his wife Barbara went to Washington in 1957.
Q: Before moving to IPS, please reflect for us on your formative influences at U of C.
MK: Look, if you take three years of natural science, three years of humanities, three years of social science, a year of foreign language, a year of philosophy, a year of history, a year of math, and ½ year of linguistics, . all based on treatises— Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, Plato, Adam Smith, Hobbes, Marx, et al, not to mention the greats of literature and history – Dostoevsky, Livy, Shakespeare, Stendhal, Tolstoy, et al, —all examined through professorial dialog, you develop dialectical antennae. And that’s carried me through life. I question everything. I want to see if the negation of some proposition can be disproven before I will believe the proposition. I had strong intellectual training that I did not want to squander in law school! I am rational and believe in truth as accessed through reason and beauty as perceived through our senses and refined emotion. I respect and feel obliged to my heritage. I went to Hebrew school and still periodically do my prayers.
Q: Which of your U of C professors stand out?
MK: I had wonderful professors: David Riesman and Anselm Strauss in Sociology, Leo Strauss in Political Philosophy, Hans Morgenthaud in international politics, Hayek and Friedman in economics, Adams in Archeology and Weil in Mathematics, I attended Hannah Arendt’s lectures on the Human Condition and On Revolution. Those were awesome experiences. When you are a young guy and you are responsible to present to Leo Strauss and his acolytes your reading of Chapter Five of Hobbes’s Leviathan, you are sweating. I had those experiences. It was tough intellectual engagement, something that I don’t think college kids experience today. For me, this was an everyday experience.
Q: What was Strauss like?
MK: He was relentless in class and a mild gentleman out of class. He used to ask me to escort him across the Midway to his apartment because he was afraid of being assaulted. He was not as terrorizing as Hans Morgenthau. Morgenthau was an autocrat and a dictator. His currency was power, while Strauss was more rabbinic, considerate and persistent. Hannah Arendt was a gracious lady—a brilliant and beautiful humanist.
MK: Hayek was a towering figure. Not autocratic, not powerful to the point of abuse like Hans Morgenthau. Hayek was a man of authority. He was a Viennese gentleman and you listened.
Q: And Riesman?
MK: Riesman was mannered, but congenial. I was researcher for him in his study of the sociology of play. We continued our friendship when I came to the Institute for Policy Studies. He was on its Board. He did some very important work, especially The Lonely Crowd.
There were so many stars at the University of Chicago, because Chicago got so many European refugee professors during the war. They took them in. You had a center of European civilization there that was very powerful. That was a formative period for me for twelve years.
Then there was the fact that I was surrounded by kids like me. We were young and weird—pre-technology geeks. Chicago was known as a radical school, full of Communists and this and that. We had a lot of very interesting kids and when we got together—there were only 500 students in the whole college, because the University of Chicago was principally a graduate school of 3,000 graduate students – we discussed the same treatises and how their insights illuminated the issues of the world inside and outside our campus. Today there are 3,500 college students taking a foreshortened core and many electives. Those old days of classical education are gone. I thank my fellow students as much as my professors for my education.
Q: OK—it’s 1962 and Marc Raskin, one of your colleagues from Chicago invites you to Washington.
MK: Marc came to Washington in 1957 and had been working for Congressman Sidney Yates and others. Then he teamed up with Richard Barnet from Harvard who worked at the Arms Control and Disarmament agency and they raised money to start the Institute for Policy Studies, which would be a Liberal think-tank. At that time The Conservative Papers, edited by Russell Kirk had come out. There were liberal journals then, but no liberal think-tank. Brookings was really a government think-tank and the American Enterprise Institute was a conservative think tank.
I had visited Marc in Washington several times since he moved there. I liked it here. After all, as a Political Scientist how could you resist being in Washington? So, Marc invited me to come. I had been working in Chicago with Saul Alinsky and the Temporary Woodlawn Organization (TWO), one of my side activities. This started when I was doing some research at the business school tracking consumer credit. My research director asked me to study consumer credit in the black neighborhood south of the campus. So I did and found a lot of price and interest rate discrimination. I brought that to the attention of TWO. They organized a campaign against merchants for discriminatory interest rates. I got involved in community organizing. My specialty in Political Science was a mix of urban politics and political philosophy. I began to develop a concept of neighborhood organization based on town meeting government and Jefferson’s idea of the “ward republic;” on self-governing groups, the Greek polis and various other historical and intellectual influences.
Q: When did you do that work, Milton?
MK: That was when I was in the Political Science department in the PhD program, 1960-1963. I delivered some lectures on neighborhood organization that Marc and his friends took an interest in and saw this as a component of a new Institute he was organizing. He urged me to come to Washington and join the Institute for Policy Studies. I saw this as an opportunity to do what I wanted to do in the area of organizing. I decided that after 12 years at the University of Chicago I had had enough and would leave Chicago and my PhD program and come to Washington.
Q: What year was that?
MK: That was 1963. I was one of the original seven fellows that opened the Institute in September of 1963. The Institute accepted no government money. It was totally funded by private and foundation sources. The fellows were a self-governing collegium. We could do whatever we wanted. I had no teaching obligations, only research, writing and action. I could just do things. It was an amazing experience. I did that for 14 years until 1977.
Q: Where was IPS located at first?
MK: We were always around Dupont Circle, first on 19th Street and T in an old mansion. Then we moved to a building between the Women’s Democratic Club and the Dupont Plaza Hotel. Then we bought two buildings on Q Street between Connecticut Avenue and 19th. We grew over the years to a reasonably large organization. In the course of that, I was able to pursue my varied interests. I went to Mississippi in 1964 for the Presbyterian Church of America. They came to us for help. Along with Christopher Jencks I developed a plan for Delta Ministry Project. That put me in Mississippi for two months. It was quite an experience and I am glad I came out of it alive.
That was a continuation of my work with the black community in Woodlawn, but it was a very dangerous situation. After Mississippi, back in Washington, I developed an interest in the situation of young college kids being arrested for marijuana possession. It was the beginning of the drug madness. I discussed this matter with my friend Gresham Sykes, a prominent criminologist and then CEO of the American Sociological Association. My thinking was why interrupt their college education, so I started a prison college—the first one in the United States, at San Quentin, in 1964 with Ford Foundation support and Joe Lohman who was ex-sheriff of Chicago and then dean of UC-Berkeley’s school of criminology. We spent two years establishing the program, with a goal of a free standing state university college within the State penitentiary system. Later, when Reagan was elected governor of California, the program was circumscribed. Nevertheless, the model was transferred to other states and institutionalized, and San Quentin still offers a B.A. for inmates to this day.
Q: A side note: during these years where were you living?
MK: When I first arrived in Washington, I lived on Capitol Hill. It was a logical place to live: I could wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, and walk over to Congress for a Hearing, all free of charge. In those days you could walk in and out of any place. From there I moved to Dupont Circle to 18th and Riggs. From there I moved to Corcoran Street between 17th and 18th street. I got married again and my wife and I moved to Adams Morgan into a great seven-room apartment overlooking Rock Creek Park for $125 a month and a great view from French windows of the sunset over Rock Creek Park. Unfortunately the heating system broke down and we moved with our two children, Tony and Joshua, to an enormous mansion on Fuller Street and Columbia road with 12 bedrooms for $175 a month. Those rooms were useful during the Anti-war demonstrations. The urban riots drove us north in 1969 to Chevy Chase DC. We came to McKinley Street. I also bought a farm in Vermont.
Q: So, you arrived in Chevy Chase in 1969. What were you doing at IPS?
MK: I spent my years at IPS doing neighborhood organizing and neighborhood development. I continued to write about neighborhoods and had some original ideas on self-governing neighborhood organizations. I met some interested ministers at the Urban Training Center for Christian Missions, where I was lecturing. One of these ministers, Leopold Bernhard of Columbus, was deeply interested in my approach to community organizing and invited me to test out some of my ideas on organizing. I went to Columbus and we formed the East Central Citizens Organization (ECCO). My approach was different than Alinsky’s and I broke with his protest approach. I didn’t believe in getting a bigger piece of the pie. I believed in self-government and neighborhoods having their own pies. I believed in breaking up the cities—having the neighborhoods become the basic unit of local government and coalescing into a metropolitan federation.
Q: Just so that we can get a fuller sense of the contrast you just made, when you say you were not advocating for a bigger piece of the pie, please elaborate on that point.
MK: Well, Alinsky was essentially a union organizer. He spent his life fighting management for more money and benefits for workers, not for control of management – a bigger piece of the pie! He applied the same principles to welfare mothers and all the community-based groups that he worked with—how to organize for more distributed benefits from government – direct payments, more services, etc.
Q: More generous subsidies from government.
MK: Yes. He was basically an organizer for subsidies. I came with an entirely different perspective. I came as a student of political philosophy—the polis, town meeting government, which we had in Vermont, Jefferson. I was looking at the neighborhood from a very different point of view—even a poor neighborhood.
Every neighborhood has a self-governing capacity. To me the neighborhood was a potential constitutional unit of government. So I was into local self-development, social development through direct assembly democracy of the residents. That is where we were very different.
There were other currents in community action at the time. There was the Black Power movement, which was a Nationalist movement. There was the white ethnic movement. There was the Reform politics movement in many cities. There were cross-currents intersecting we had contentious disputes.
From the Institute I organized neighborhood corporations in Boston, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Brooklyn, and elsewhere around the self-governing ECCO model in Columbus. I did 14 years of that work. I developed an intellectual think-tank within IPS called the Institute for Neighborhood Studies, for which I raised independent money. I also had the good luck to meet Greta Smith, my wife now for 36 years and we had two wonderful children, Jonathan and Becca, as well as the frequent and loving company of Tony and Joshua.
Milton Kotler at IPS, 1968
Q: Before we go into that, it deserves mentioning that along the way you published Neighborhood Government: The Local Foundations of Political Life.
MK: That was in 1969 and the book was a reflective examination of my organizing experience from 1963 to 1969, most specifically with ECCO. The book was controversial when it came out and it is still in print.
Q: Yes—it was re-released in 2005 with a new introduction and, if I may say so, comes with stellar introductory endorsements from Hannah Arendt, Kenneth Boulding, Harvey Cox, and Paul Goodwin.
MK: It was a controversial book, because I called for breaking up the cities and devolving local government to the neighborhood level. Then the neighborhoods could coalesce into metropolitan federation. This was a very radical point of view, opposed to all the conventional planning and political thinking about strengthening the governmental powers of cities. In the book I drew upon my historical research to show that many of our neighborhoods were once towns that were annexed by a dominant town in the region. Neighborhoods as we commonly know them today are the leftovers of annexed towns. That is why they still have a social and civic identity.
Q: The book was published just as you were moving to Chevy Chase from Adams Morgan.
MK: That’s right. It was the same year that we moved to this house.
Q: After that, it wasn’t just the book. It wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. You were heavily engaged in the world of advocacy.
MK: Yes. I was an advocate and an organizer until 1981. I got substantial funds from the government—not IPS, which took no government money – for the neighborhood corporations with which I was working. I was supported only by my IPS salary. Neighborhood organizations that that I worked with were funded by Federal government agencies, – Office of Economic Opportunity, HUD (U.S. Department of Urban Development), Department of Labor, etc. In fact, I helped draft the model cities legislation, which was originally called model neighborhoods legislation. I had some political support.
Q: At municipal level in the District of Columbia, had the ANC (Advisory Neighborhood Commission) legislation already been passed?
MK: No. That happened in 1974. I helped draft that legislation with Congressman Don Fraser from Minnesota. Greta and I did the initial organizing for the election of the first ANC commissioners. Greta wrote the ANC handbook for the new commissioners.
Q: When was that?
MK: Probably in 1974.
Q: Since you mentioned Greta, let’s go back a little and bring her into the story. How did you meet?
MK: Greta and I married in 1976. We met at IPS in 1972. I had two children from a previous marriage. Greta and I had two additional children, Jonathan and Becca. We have been together ever since, a very happy couple. Before we met, Greta was working in Spain for four years after college. She was raised in Kensington, MD. She returned for a while and was preparing to go to Chile when Allende was President, before his overthrow in September 1973. We fell in love and she decided not to go back to Chile and married me instead. It probably saved her life and I hope gave her a little romantic happiness on the side. She certainly saved my life. Greta was active in the same field.
Q: Where did Greta study?
MK: The University of Wisconsin in Madison. Then she went off to Spain and taught English there. She is fluent in Spanish and now she is travelling all around the world in her current position at the American Society of Association Executives. Greta was with me at IPS and INS (Institute for Neighborhood Studies), a neighborhood think tank subsidiary of IPS for which I raised independent funding.
Then she moved on to the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs (NCUEA), run by Gino Barroni. That group advocated for white ethnic neighborhoods – Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, etc. That was one of the currents of the time at the community level. The community level was in ferment—much activity and thought and practice. So, we have always had a shared interest in the community level. That was life at IPS and after that in the neighborhood.
Q: Tell us about Leopold Bernhard.
MK: Leopold was my closest friend, next to Greta. Through our collaborative work, he was very influential in my life.
Q: Remind us when you met him.
MK: 1964. We started the ECCO project in late 1964. I worked actively with the project until 1968. During that period of time, I was organizing other projects in Boston and other cities. Leopold was a Lutheran minister. He was a German refugee—he left Germany in 1938 and built his career in America with the Lutheran Church of America – in New Jersey, New York City, Baltimore, Columbus and Buffalo. Then he came to Washington in the mid ’70s to run the political affairs program of the Lutheran church on East Capitol Street. I worked with him on that program of examining a Biblical perspective on public issues.
Q: You met him in Washington?
MK: No—I met him in 1964 in Chicago at the Urban Training Center for Christian Missions. He was based in Columbus, Ohio then. He invited me to Columbus to test out my neighborhood government ideas. I spent nearly four years working with Leopold in Columbus. It was our first neighborhood government project. It is the organizational innovation upon which my book Neighborhood Government: The Local Foundations of Political Life, 1969, is based.
Q: Can you say something about his novel?
MK: Yes, he wrote a novel in collaboration with Kresman Taylor in 1940 about Nazi subordination of the Lutheran churches in Germany. His family was living in Germany during that period, so he could not author the book. Leopold came from a wealthy family in Lubeck. Thomas Mann’s novel, Buddenbrooks was based on his mother’s family in that city. Leopold was from the haute bourgeoisie, even the baronial bourgeoisie, splendidly educated. His uncle invented corrugated steel and the family was prominent in German life. He went to seminary in Switzerland and when he graduated had to return to Germany. He was subject to military conscription, but he refused to serve in Hitler’s army. With family help he left Germany and came to the United States with $10 in his pocket and a pair of gold cuff links. He had no future in Germany. He got connected to the Lutheran church in New York and from there built a career. He was an esteemed pastor.
We were very good friends and soul-mates; not only through the ECCO in Columbus, but later when he served in Buffalo, NY, and thereafter in the Washington political affairs program. He asked me to serve on the board. Here I was a Jewish guy on a Lutheran board. Ultimately, I gave the eulogy at Leopold’s funeral. It was a powerful moment in my life and for his wife Thelma and the congregation.
Q: When did he die?
MK: It was the mid-80s.
Q: What about ECCO?
MK: I don’t think that ECCO has survived gentrification. It had a proud history. It is hard for people today to comprehend that we had organized neighbor communities as assembly–based self-governing corporations in poor neighborhoods. What we call “poor neighborhoods” today were black working class back then. They had two parent families, churches, merchants, professions, schools and a rich social and cultural life. ECCO and other similar neighborhoods had impressive leadership. Blacks were discriminated against, so that all the power of their thought, character and emotion were expressed at the community level. We organized a formal, constitutional government of the neighborhood. My major innovation in neighborhood organizing was the application of the 501(C3) tax exemption—private, non-profit tax-exempt status— to neighborhood territory. That was the first time that was done.
Q: Territory is central to your concept.
MK: Yes. Territory was central. This territory was organized as a legal self-governing corporate entity. We had a constitution; we had direct assembly governance and an elected executive council to carry out assembly decisions. We had direct funding from HUD and anti-poverty programs. The neighborhood was doing fairly well. When the riots broke out in cities all over the country, I’ll never forget during the Columbus riot there were no fires or looting in the territorial boundaries of ECCO. Nothing was damaged or burned within that 5,000-resident territory.
Q: ECCO’s territory is within Columbus?
MK: Yes, East of downtown and bounded on the north by Main Street. I got caught in a lot of these urban riots – Boston, Washington and elsewhere. You mentioned Harvey Cox. I was staying with Harvey in Boston when the Boston riots broke out in 1968. We had a neighborhood government project sponsored by the Blue Hill Christian Ministry we are sitting in Harvey’s dining room when Blue Hill Corporation leaders came with the news that some welfare mothers had shackled themselves to the city building in Roxbury. Harvey was one of the few whites still living in Roxbury then. That night, while the stores on Blue Hill Avenue two blocks away were burning, Harvey said that we had a party downtown—some people from the Boston Globe. I said to Harvey, they are rioting all over the place—how are we going to get downtown? Sure enough, we got in the car and at every block there was a minister or neighborhood leader monitoring who could leave and who could enter. We passed from block to block in this way until we arrived downtown and we returned to Harvey’s house in the same manner. Those were interesting times.
We had meetings of 400 people in ECCO to decide major questions regarding youth programs, health programs and many things besides. We had the first neighborhood health center run by the neighborhood. It still survives. I remember taking some of the neighborhood leaders of ECCO to Boston to visit the Ford Foundation’s model neighborhood health center. It was pretty fancy; it was new; there were a lot of doctors. One of our leaders Hilda Ellison, a laundress and treasurer for ECCO—about 350 lbs, five feet tall and bright as star – said no, we don’t want this. We want a neighborhood doctor, not this big thing. The medical staff was puzzled: What do you mean? She said what we need is a night doctor when people come home from work and find that one of the children is sick. We need a store with a night doctor for them or their children. That’s all we need. They responded: a night doctor? Doctors don’t work at night. Hilda was a Lutheran. She said Albert Schweitzer worked at night. We have to find a young Albert Schweitzer. And sure enough, we found a young doctor for this first ECCO neighborhood health center. Now there are thousands neighborhood health centers around the country. So, we did start something new.
Q: Preparing for this conversation you mentioned Bernhard’s run-in with the local police on a matter concerning his membership in the Columbus Athletic Club that led to an important debate in the ECCO assembly. What was that about?
MK: Those were really two events. The first involved the police. The second involved the ECCO General Assembly. By 1966 ECCO needed a full-time executive. I met with Bob Moses of SNCC, a friend of mine, and Bob recommended Ivanhoe Donaldson, who was a young organizer in Mississippi. His name may be familiar to you, because years later Ivanhoe became Deputy Mayor to Marion Barry. I met with Ivanhoe and asked him to come to Columbus to be interviewed by the community for the job. He drove from Mississippi to Columbus. He was stopped at the city border and arrested by the police. He was trailed all the way from Mississippi to Columbus. He got one telephone call and called me with Leopold’s number. I was staying with Leopold and his wife Thelma at the time.
We went down to the police station. Leopold was a tall—6’2”—strong fellow in his pastoral collar. He said that he wanted to see the Captain on duty. “You can’t—he’s busy.” “I want to see him.” Leopold took him by the scruff of his police collar and said I want to see the Captain. The Captain came. “What charges do you have against this man?” The chief blathered and ordered his release.
On another occasion I came to Columbus for a visit and was staying at the Columbus Athletic Club across from the state capital. I wanted to have a breakfast meeting with Ivanhoe, so I invited him to the Club. Ivanhoe arrived and we sat in the dining room. A black waiter came to the table and told us the Club does not serve Negroes. Ivanhoe and I were enraged, but tempered enough to leave. Leopold and I used the Club a lot, because that’s where all the politicians met.
Q: This is when?
MK: 1966 ECCO leaders called an emergency meeting that night. Several hundred people showed up to discuss whether Leopold Bernhard should resign from the Columbus Athletic Club in protest of this insult and discrimination. There was an amazing debate. The Club had all the politicians and ECCO, as a neighborhood government with government program authority and funding, needed to deal with these people. Neither Leopold nor I spoke. Ivanhoe described the event and his rage. Many people spoke. One group said look, we are not a civil rights movement; we are a neighborhood government. We have to deal with these people. Leopold should remain in the Club. Another group said: we cannot be insulted and tolerate this discrimination. He should resign. Leopold was prepared to abide by the Assembly decision. The assembly voted for Leopold to retain his membership. It was an incredible prudential that suborned deep emotional distress. The important thing is that there were many general assembly meeting of hundreds of ECCO citizens not only for that matter, but for other things.
Q: ECCO is a predominantly black community?
MK: Yes. The whole key to ECCO was the role that Leopold’s church played in the development. The first English Lutheran church was a white church in a black neighborhood. There were a few black members. They had a community center, probably the size of our Chevy Chase Community Center. It had once been a school. It was a big building with nothing to do. The whole issue of organizing was the legal transfer of ownership of that facility to the ECCO Corporation. That was a very formal process. Three hundred people showed up for the solemn legal transfer event – transferring real property to this neighborhood government. Up until then, ECCO had been running programs in the center, but did not possess ownership of the building. We had reached a point where the church membership was confident enough in ECCO to transfer this real property asset.
It was as if the Chevy Chase Community Center were transferred to the control of the Chevy Chase Citizens Association or the ANC – no longer run by the city. Can you imagine what that would involve? That’s what we were doing in those days. It was the goal of neighborhood government to own and manage public assets in the community.
While the constitutional goal of neighborhood government did not succeed, its premise survives to this day in legally mandated Advisory Neighborhood Commissions here in Washington and in many other cities in the U.S. and other countries. This survival is documented in the introduction to the re-issue of my book by Professor Terry Cooper from UCLA. ANCs have municipal mandates of advisory powers, budgets and so forth. Our ANC does not own or manage the Chevy Chase Community Center or the library for that matter, but imagine those properties being transferred to the ANC. You would see something different. You would see the abundant social initiative of our neighborhood exercising self-governing responsibility.
Our Chevy Chase Listserve is evidence of the social imagination and personal sense of responsibility that our neighbors have for the wellbeing of our community. We have some great discourse in this neighborhood, but it’s not attached to governing responsibility for public community assets – the Center, the Library, the schools. My idea was that neighborhoods should be constituted as local governments, ratified by state legislatures as governments and federated at a metropolitan level. As a matter of fact, (Senator) Mark Hatfield introduced legislation to that effect in 1972. He was a great friend and supporter.
Forgive me for introducing a thought that has puzzled me for years and which intelligent critics proffered back then and would do so today. Was neighborhood government a romantic idea? History moves on. Was it practical then and is it practical now? First, there is nothing wrong with romanticism. My generation would be content to rejoice in the social inventions of the ’60s and early ’70s as a gift of political romanticism in all of its cross-currents – town meeting government, Jefferson’s war republics, and anti-war movements, civil rights, the Greek polis, participatory democracy, etc. – all things of the past. It depends very much on how you view history. Is history linear with no return; or is history cyclical with inevitable return? This is a long discussion that we have no time to go into. But the critical financial condition of our annexing imperial cities and their crumbling infrastructure, might suggest the possibility of power devolving back to the neighborhood communities, which they annexed.
Q: That brings us to the question of how the various neighborhood interest groups positioned themselves in the ’60s and ’70s vis-à-vis the neighborhood government concept that you describe. Who was for, who was against in the period when the concept gained traction?
MK: Who was for it? The new generation of radical politics in the ’60s and ’70s! There were divisions–self-government, ethnicity, welfare rights and protest organization, etc. One thing that killed the vitality of the neighborhood government movement was paradoxically the admission of black leaders to the municipal political level. Many of the talented leaders in the neighborhoods aspired to become elected city council officials and mayors. They got their hands on the public trough, and as you know power corrupts, whether your black or white. The neighborhoods organizations were wiped out – cut out from funding. Crime took over; families broke up; people left; gentrification gained. All of that social structure that could support neighborhood government vanished. Today the idea of self-governing neighborhoods has no status intellectually and only minimal status in the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. After my book came out, not more than a handful of people engaged in my line of thought.
Q: Just taking Washington as an example, since the ANCs were after all launched here and you had some responsibility for that, and this was occurring at the same time that Afro-Americans were able, as you said, to aspire to and get positions at the central municipal level. So, if I heard you correctly, this created a contest for resources between the local and the central municipal levels.
MK: It happened with Ivanhoe. I had a new project coming up in Boston. I brought Ivanhoe to the Institute for Policy Studies as a Fellow. One day I told him about a new neighborhood project and asked him if he could help. He told me “Look, I am not interested in neighborhoods anymore. I’m only interested in city government. Ivanhoe went on to organize Marion Berry’s mayoral campaign, and subsequently became his deputy mayor.
There is still good leadership in the neighborhoods. But who is organizing the ANCs to – take-over their community centers, libraries, schools? Is it even in people’s imagination that this neighborhood could be a self-governing entity? Not just a representative advisory voice, but a democratic polity with legal responsibility to manage its public institutions. You know, we had neighborhood school boards in some cities, like New York City, back in the 1960s. The politicians and teachers’ union finally got rid of that.
Q: Recently there was a movement in some parts of Northwest DC to secede from DC and join Maryland.
MK: Why subordinate yourself to corrupt politicians in Maryland? Representative government at the local level is really an awful thing when you think about it. It may be a constitutional habit, but human beings shouldn’t be turning over their local responsibilities to a few people to run their lives. Joining Maryland would be foolish. Why donate the wealth of our community to the financial problems of Maryland? Some will argue that Maryland state income tax is lower than DC. Not by much if you accept that Maryland’s tax will climb to 7 percent. DC sales tax is lower than theirs by 1 percent. On the tax side, it is pretty much a wash. If Northwest DC were an independent municipality, both its income tax and sales tax would probably be lower than today, whether we remain in DC or move to Maryland. We can certainly do as well as the independent township of Chevy Chase, MD.
Our cities are in a deep financial crisis. Some are falling into bankruptcy. Kenneth Boulding said my book was 20 years ahead of my time. Fifty years would have been a better guess. The cities may break up. They cannot handle their liabilities. Stockton, Riverside and other cities in California and cities in other states are bankrupt. Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania has filed for bankruptcy. There is no way in the world that these large, annexing municipalities can survive without unsustainable taxation. Chicago’s sales tax has reached 9.5 percent. Eventually, the cities may break up and responsibilities may devolve to the neighborhood level.
Q: Who else was arrayed against the neighborhood idea? In a preliminary discussion I think you mentioned the city services, welfare services.
MK: Many of the professional social workers and planners were against it, because they wanted to control the social and physical environment of communities. They had grandiose ideas for the city of the future that were very theoretical. As they moved the process forward, the real estate developers captured their ideology and made money. The “City Beautiful” program and all these thoughts about cities to me are nonsense, because in the final analysis, power and influence will rule. Unless you devolve power to people, the real estate industry will make money off cities and politicians will be corrupted. It’s true everywhere in the world. But the political imagination of self-government is indeed gone, intellectually and possibly culturally. An interesting question is how did all of the community action excitement of the ’60s and ’70s vanish? How did democratic participation vanish from our culture?
Q: I think your friend Hannah Arendt would say that it goes back long before Jefferson to Greece.
MK: Not Greece, possible Rome, although the plebs at least had Tribunes. The idea of representative government was an English invention and it overwhelmed citizen democracy. Very few people talk about these things today.
Q: Just to put a point on it, the normative appeal of your approach has to do with a set of assumptions about development, right? If you were going for a bigger piece of the pie, the idea is that the pie would continue to expand. But if I understand your concept correctly, expansion is not at all something one should assume. Instead, one has to deal with the status of communities as they actually exist today.
MK: That’s right. There is no reason why the U.S. pie will grow. China is making this quite clear. As we see the current situation: the global economic pie is barely growing, and the U.S. slice is getting smaller. Interest groups going after a bigger slice of a decreasing pie are taking cuts from other people. There is a whole realm of economic creativity inherent in local political democracy and small scale government that is unexplored and unimagined now. Even the most interesting intellectuals ignore this possibility. Look at Singapore for small scale prosperity. Would it be less prosperous if it were more democratic? Every time I view the Chevy Chase Listserv I say, my God what social and entrepreneurial energy is here—it’s fantastic. And most of its messaging is spent on private concerns without any public governing responsibility.
Q: Let’s move on to another phase of your life here. With the waning of neighborhood government, you reinvent yourself. You move to Chevy Chase; you go through a period in which you are very involved in the NGO world. That also wanes. In the meantime, you have a family to support…
MK: That’s right. In 1975 I started the National Association of Neighborhoods and I left IPS in 1976 to run it. NAN became a $5 million organization with friendly support from the Carter Administration and foundations. In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected President. My organization was increasingly black. It really needed a black leader. And I needed to make a living. I had a family and four children to support. By then I had done my bit; there was nothing more I could really creatively contribute to the neighborhood movement. So, I resigned and I went into business. That is what little “Mickey,” my childhood and nickname, wanted to do when he was in high school and thinking about going to Northwestern University.
Q: How did you ever get the moniker Mickey?
MK: In those days, there were a few more Miltons. All Miltons were nicknamed Mickey in those days. So Mickey went into business after 14 years in the NGO world of grants. It was tough breaking in. Even though I came from a business family, I had spent so many years in the think-tank and NGO world that I didn’t know what money really was. I was always good at raising money, but earning money is an entirely different matter.
My first business clients were NGOs—neighborhood health centers, colleges, hospitals. I started a marketing company and in a short time I started to get private sector clients – Ford Motor Company, IBM, Southwestern Bell, and Michelin. My brother’s stature in marketing helped a great deal. He helped me a great deal although he was never an owner of my company. After a couple of years I no longer had NGO clients. Kotler Marketing Group became a straight commercial marketing company which I ran from 1982 to the end of the ’90s. We worked principally for Fortune 1000 companies. We did branding work, distribution, pricing, all sorts of things. It was very exciting. I like action, so I enjoyed the business world. I met a whole new set of people.
With this change in life circumstances, I drifted from old friends at IPS, the whole community organizing field, and I entered a new world of business. I spent these years in Washington. My son, Tony came into the company. He runs the U.S. Company today, while I focus entirely on our China subsidiary, Shenzhen Kotler Management. Josh, my second son, worked with us for a while, but he found better pickings in Miami, FL, where he spent his college years. He has a successful IT company in Miami and a beautiful wife and two lovely children.
Fortuitously, in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, I became Chairman of the board of the Washington Symphony Orchestra. I am a violinist and have always been active musically. My kids grew up with Ensemble quartets in our house. Our son Jonathan is a classical composer at Rutgers University and my daughter Becca, a primary school teacher in Chicago, is a fine cellist.
I was an active player in the Washington Civic Symphony. We were the municipal orchestra of D.C., supported for decades by the DC recreation budget as a players’ orchestra. We did concerts at churches, schools and the like. Then the city cut us out of the budget. We lost our conductor and all support. The players wanted to play. Since I was the only businessman, they turned to me and asked if I would chair the Board and try to save the orchestra. I gave it a try. I restructured the orchestra as the Washington Symphony Orchestra and approached DAR for a venue. Then I came up with the idea that since we were in Washington with all of its embassies or corporate government relations and trade offices, we should market our orchestra to the countries and solicit corporate contributions for foreign country concerts. They wanted good will, so let’s have concerts with embassies receptions and private corporate meetings with ambassadors. We would premier classical works and performers from the different countries. I was able to raise enough money to hire a conductor, pay for a rehearsal and performance venue.
Q: Who was performing?
MK: Our orchestra, under the baton of foreign conductors, along with foreign guest performers. Let me tell you how I did it with China. I went to the embassy with our conductor and met with the cultural minister, who then introduced us to the ambassador. We said we would like to do a China concert at DAR Constitution Hall. They were absolutely delighted, because it was a chance for cultural exposure after Tiananmen and to show off some of their classical musical talent. They sent over the conductor of the Beijing National Symphony and a pianist. We had the first concert—performing the “Yellow River Piano Concerto.” It was a successful event, generating a great deal of money from corporate contributions – IBM, Motorola, Easton Chemical, Flour, New York Life, etc. We filled the hall, distributing 50,000 free tickets to get 3,400 people to fill the seats. It was a grand success and wiped out our red ink. Subsequently, I produced seven or eight more China concerts. China was the thing that the companies wanted to support, so I was able to develop 50 corporate sponsors.
In 1997, the Chinese Minister of Culture, Sun Jiazheng, came to Washington and the embassy asked me to host a lunch. I did this at the University Club of Washington, D.C. I invited the U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, artist Bryce Marden, pianist Bryon Ganz and other distinguished cultural figures. Then Minister Sun graciously invited me to China the following year as a VIP guest. I made my first visit to China in 1998. We had already done seven China concerts, but I had never been to China and knew nothing about China, other than the fact that the corporations wanted to support our China concerts. We had wonderful events and these China concerts kept the orchestra going for a decade.
I went to China and visited five cities and met many performing arts organizations. This was a cultural trip. I was invited again in 1999 by the Shanghai Minister of Culture to attend the 1st Shanghai International Music Festival. That same year, a couple of Chinese gentlemen who made a fortune on the Shanghai stock market wanted to start a Marketing company. They came to my Company because our Marketing reputation and my cultural work on behalf of China. They offered me an irresistible deal to come to China. I was 64 years old then. Meanwhile, Tony, my son, was chomping at the bit to make his mark in the company. So I said, well, Tony, you take over the American business here; I’m going to China. So, I went to China and I have been there ever since.
Q: What is the rest of the China story?
MK: That was 1999 and here we are in 2012. I have been in China 13 years. Our company in China is strong. We are recognized as the #1 marketing strategy companies in China. We work only for Chinese companies and local governments on corporate marketing strategy and land planning, development and marketing. Kotler Marketing Group China has a professional staff and I serve as Chairman. My Chinese partner, Cao Hu, runs the Company. I visit seven and eight times a year for speeches and important official and client meetings. I love China.
Q: Have you become Chinese? And if you have, how?
MK: No I remain an American, but with a unique perspective on China, as well as our own country. It is very hard to assimilate into Chinese culture. You’re talking about a 5,000 thousand-year civilization. When you have thousands of years of music, literature, business life, poetry, fine arts and astonishing crafts you have a very sophisticated civilization. I had no educational training in Asia. It is fascinating to me. I have been studying the language for 10 years. I look forward to my trips and I have a new set of friends there.
Q: It keeps you young.
MK: I don’t know. Nothing can do that. You just get old with more wisdom and stature.
Q: Had you ever thought of relocating?
MK: Yes. Greta and I have talked about it. Greta also travels to Asia for her business. She loves China, too. We would like to live in Beijing, possibly for a year or two. Chinese people are delightful. They are humorous, intelligent, ambitious and honorable. Of course, there are always exceptions. The biggest challenge is language. Although I study—and to this day take eight hours of instruction each week—it’s still impossible to learn the language well enough unless you live there. In daily communications it is tough to handle thousands of thousands of combinations of 400 syllables and four tones. You need 3,000 to read a newspaper, 10,000 to read a book, and 30,000 characters to be a scholar. It is a whole different world, but the Chinese are good people; I haven’t had any problems there. I hope we continue to have good relations with them, through a strong Sino-American friendship.
I don’t think we would live there full time. Our children and grandchildren are her. We would probably live there for a short period and travel back to visit. It certainly would be easier on my biological clocks; but as long as I am able to travel we don’t have to make that decision. I live life by the adventure of each new project, each new challenge. Every day is different.
Q: A very broad question: every moment is unique, of course. In the relationship between the East and the West, specifically between the United States and China, where do you see us now?
MK: Well, the U.S. has a lot of problems, politically and economically. We have to deal with our debt and rebuild our economy… I don’t know how we are going to do it because of the political polarization of embedded interests. I also believe that we have too small a population to thrive in the Asia century. I look at population as a market. You can’t compete in this world with a domestic market of 350 million people. India has over a billion. China has over a billion. If we can increase our domestic market size and solve our debt problem, then we can make it.
China has its problems as well. Twenty five million young people come into the labor market each year, so they must grow. They have problems with wealth distribution and the desire of middle class people for more freedom. They have the benefit of a massive educated and entrepreneurial population and a centralized policy that can decide what to do and mobilize the forces to do it. I am optimistic about China.
The U.S. is still a great power and our economy is entwined with China’s economy. If we can deal with our problems, then we can probably find a modus Vivendi with China that can last for decades. If we do not solve our problems, then all hell will break lose.
Q: I would like to wrap up with a coda from the planetary, global level just now returning to the neighborhood. We haven’t talked about your interaction with Chevy Chase.
MK: I moved here in 1969. I bought this house for $23,500, which was lot of money for my salary in those days. We moved from Adams Morgan after the riots. For a guy who started on Capitol Hill, moved to Dupont Circle, then to Adams Morgan, to come all the way up Connecticut Avenue could cause a nose-bleed Virginia and Maryland were out of the question. I didn’t even know those places. You recall that I grew up in the city of Chicago. Our neighborhood is just fine for a city boy.
Q: Did all the kids go to Lafayette?
MK: Jonathan and Becca did. My older boys were living in another city with their mother but spent a lot of time living with us. They loved the neighborhood as much as my younger children. My older boys fell in love with Greta, loved the house, the neighborhood – Broad Branch Market, Lafayette School Park, Connecticut Avenue and the whole works. All of our children Tony, Josh, Jonathan and Becca are very close to each other. Our four grandchildren in Miami and Chicago also love the house and neighborhood.
This is a great neighborhood. You have Connecticut Avenue just two blocks away. It’s walkable; you have all your merchants there. Activity-wise, I was one of the founders of the Upper Connecticut Avenue Betterment Association to better manage the automobile traffic from Safeway. We also tried to get the buses off McKinley Street. We organized the neighborhood up and down McKinley, but then ran into opposition from Military Road residents, who didn’t want buses on their street. That was a two-year campaign that got us some infrastructure improvement and less noisy and polluting buses.
Q: When was that?
MK: That was around 1976-1977. Over time, the issue re- surfaces again. As I age, I began to see it differently and have grown to like the bus. It’s a convenience, though I don’t use it much. I have an office downtown, which I rarely visit since Tony runs the U.S. company. I work on China matters in my home office and stay out of his hair. I only drive downtown to the University Club to meet my buddies and host Chinese business guests who come to Washington, and for cultural events. I love the fact I can walk around the corner to the Broad Branch Market. The new owners have brought great gusto to the place. It’s more vibrant than the community center down the street at Connecticut Avenue.
MK: Jon and Becca both went to Lafayette and had a very positive experience.
Q: Did they go on to Deal?
MK: Jonathan went to Deal for a year and then transferred him to St. Anselms. A Jewish boy in a Catholic school. Becca stayed to the bitter end at Deal and then went to GDS, instead of Wilson. They both spent many years at the Levine School of Music.
Q: Why did you do that?
MK: Jonathan got a marvelous academic education at St. Anselms with PhD professors and Becca got a good educationand had a good social life at GDS. To this day, they remain close to friends from Lafayette, deal and Wilson.
Q: How did Jonathan get to St. Anselms?
MK: He took the bus. One of the E buses goes right to South Dakota Avenue. Jonathan went off to Northwestern. Becca went to the University of Chicago, like her dad. She is now living in Hyde Park, married to a U. of C. Professor of Neuropsychology and teaching at a private school in Hyde Park. She is an accomplished cellist and good intellectual, as well as a splendid mother of two children.
Q: Jonathan is in New York?
MK: Jonathan spent 10 years in New York — five years in commercial studio music and then his preparation at Julliard for his M.A. degree from Mannes. He is now doing his PhD program at Rutgers University and teaching Fundamentals of Music Theory. My oldest son Tony runs the Kotler Marketing Group business in Washington and Josh runs his IT business in Miami. .
Q: So, your kids were going to school in Washington about the time that desegregation was occurring.
MK: It was an unsettling period and tense atmosphere in the city when they were young. But new values and good things come out of disruption. By the time they were in high school, the city was turning the corner and things were settling down. But Deal was a sort of ridiculous place then. You couldn’t get an education there. We didn’t know about Wilson, because none of our children went there. Some of their friends went to Wilson and did very well. My decision to send the kids elsewhere was strictly intellectual. Becca was a cellist; Jonathan was a violinist. I wanted them to have as much of a classical academic education as possible.
Q: Did you see much white-flight in the 1970s-1980s?
MK: Oh yes. There was a vast flight from the city.
Q: Also in Chevy Chase D.C.?
MK: Yes. Some neighbors crossed the border to Maryland. We had some robbery fears, but this has always been a stable neighborhood. There is neighborly feeling and support. It was remains are a very solid neighborhood. We have never thought about moving. My view is: To move means giving up your neighbors; it’s finding new merchants; building new habits…and moving all your books! Why move? So, we never entertained the idea of moving.
Q: Of all the neighbors I see—and for the record, we live across the street from one another—you see me and I see you because we both spend a lot of time on our front porches. Not many of our neighbors do that…
MK: It is regrettable. They use their decks and back porches instead of their front porches. I don’t have deck; instead I have a beautiful garden. I have garden furniture and a fish pond. I like to wander in my garden and maintain it. I don’t know why people prefer to look at their alleys instead of using their porches, looking to the street and seeing people, neighbors…
Q: So, what is your philosophy on porches?
MK: Use them! What is more gratifying than to see a neighbor? That’s friendship; that’s help; it’s support; it’s a certain felicity, a certain communal happiness. We have always been close to our neighbors. You live in the old Fowler house.
Q: Do you remember them?
MK: Sure. Mr. Fowler had an important position as a government official or lawyer. One of his sons owned a radio station. Before your neighbor, Barbara came, the owner used to sit on her porch. I love to watch humanity from my porch.
Q: It is like having your own café.
MK: Precisely. Especially our great porch. This is a fabulous little house. We eat our dinners on the porch. I work on the porch, I couldn’t think of moving from here, except for a stint in Beijing. And then we would rent this out and reclaim it when we came back. Our kids wouldn’t accept the idea of us selling this house.
Q: So, we can expect to see Kotlers here for many years to come.
MK: Oh yes.
Q: Well, I hope we have many, many years together as neighbors.
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