Watch Al Price's farewell lecture
Published June 7, 2019
A gifted teacher who captivated students with his 5,000-year history of cities and decoded for others the complexities of community development finance, Alfred Price could always fill a lecture hall.
The beloved professor of urban planning did so one last time last month when hundreds of colleagues, former students and community members packed Hayes Hall to hear Price reflect upon his 42-year career at UB.
A gifted teacher who captivated students with his 5,000-year history of cities and decoded for others the complexities of community development finance, Alfred Price could always fill a lecture hall. The beloved professor of urban planning did so one last time last month when hundreds of colleagues, former students and community members packed Hayes Hall to hear Price reflect upon his 42-year career at UB.
His message to all was this: Teaching matters. More specifically, teachers matter.
Just as so many had come to thank him, Price dedicated his “farewell lecture” to his own teachers and mentors — from grammar school to graduate school and into professional life. They imparted more than knowledge, Price said: “They altered my life with a set of values that have served as the nourishment for my intellect, as well as my spirit.”
There was the devotion instilled by Ouida Clapp, Prices’ seventh-grade English teacher from Buffalo Public School #53. Recognizing Price’s oratory potential, she set aside three mornings a week to coach him on his elocution, enunciation, pronunciation and pace. “No one went farther than the job description or proverbial call of duty than Mrs. Clapp. It has been an inspiration to me all my life,” he said.
An unforgettable lesson in compassion came from Hanno Weber, who taught Price during his master’s in architecture and urban planning studies at Princeton University. Weber established that the “public” in public housing does not preclude quality design. “In other words,” Price said, “don’t design it if you wouldn’t live in it yourself.”
Julian Wolpert, Price’s thesis adviser in urban policy and planning at Princeton, pushed Price to persevere — even in the face of a crippling case of writer’s block. “I was in tears, convinced I was a failure,” Price said, recalling his breakdown in Wolpert’s office. After reinforcing the value of Price’s research — a public housing model for post-industrial cities with Buffalo as the case study — Wolpert ended the session with a strict order: “‘Go home and get to work. Just stick with it. Never give up.’” Price finished his thesis on time and graduated with his class.
Inviting his audience into some of his most intimate life experiences, Price relayed story after story with wisdom and wit, charm and candor. He concluded each with character-building lessons that guide him to this day: selflessness, hard work, humility, self-confidence, devotion, appreciation, perseverance, compassion, encouragement, inquisitiveness, forgiveness, love.
After multiple standing ovations, the audience made it clear just how well Price has lived out those values. Indeed, in almost uncanny parallelism, students, colleagues and friends shared equally moving stories of life-altering inspiration — this time with Price in the teacher’s chair.
Preparing special remarks for the occasion was Enjoli Hall, MUP ’17, who counts Price as mentor, teacher, thesis adviser and “treasured friend.”
“Professor Price exemplifies what this program and this profession is at its best,” she said: We’re visionary but pragmatic. We’re critical but compassionate. We can articulate the challenges and opportunities of a community in numbers and prose, fluent in the language of project finance as well as power and privilege — all underlined by a commitment to the poor and marginal in our society. Now if that seems like a tall order for one person, Professor Price shows that it can and must be done, and with style and wit at that.”
Bryan Cacciotti, MUP ’01, referred to a single lecture by Price as the most important in his life. “You told us that community development was the ultimate game of patience. But you also advised us to be steeled by our convictions,” said Cacciotti, a community housing developer in Buffalo in the 2000s. “I’ve learned that if you perfectly and compassionately believe in what you’re doing, the ultimate game of patience will not defeat you.”
Eve Holberg, MUP ‘91, a journalist-turned-planner who has worked in economic development and tourism planning from Watertown, NY, to Buffalo, said Price helped her find her voice — and the courage to speak out. “I can never thank you enough for that,” she said.
Price was beloved by architecture and urban planning students alike. If there was a course offered by Price, Hector Garrido, MArch ’00, took it. It was Price who inspired his master’s thesis on low-income housing. “To this day, I continue my interest in those topics,” he wrote via email.
Douglas Levere, who earned a bachelor’s in design studies in 1994, also emailed his reflections, noting that he recalls lessons from Price’s “History of Cities” course, one of UB’s most popular general elective courses, every time he visits a new city or investigates his own.
At the close of the lecture, guests queued to the back of the auditorium for a chance to express their personal thanks to Price.
The award-winning teacher — Price received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2006 — has also left his mark on the academy, community and university over the course of a four-decade career.
Hired in 1977 by Dean Emeritus Harold Cohen, Price was brought on as both a faculty member and associate dean to help the fledgling school — then just barely a decade old — establish professional degrees, grow its faculty and bring in external funding.
Charismatic, ambitious and sharp, Price deftly balanced teaching with administration and community outreach. So much so that when Cohen went on sabbatical just four years later, he named Price interim dean.
“Al took that year and, with his speech and power, helped me to tame the school,” said Cohen, noting that Price laid the foundation for key faculty searches and advanced the architecture program’s path to national accreditation.
The two worked together until Cohen stepped down in 1984. “Together we made a big difference. I don’t think I could have done it without Al. He was my best and finest choice.”
Price was mutually taken by Cohen, particularly his work in the community on behalf of the school. “Harold taught me that we are not here for ourselves,” he said. “We are here to serve others and work on behalf of the good of the community, a sacred public trust.”
Price carried that mantle forward. Among his first funded projects in Buffalo was a Buffalo publicly funded study on the Kenfield Langfield housing project on the city’s East Side. The units were proposed for demolition, but Price thought they could be saved. A coalition of architecture and planning faculty at the school advised — and the city implemented — improvements including enlarging the units, installing front stoops and adding pitched roofs. The complex stands today.
His public service generated plans, policy and peer-reviewed publications. The Bethel Neighborhood Redevelopment Plan (2001) was prepared for the Bethel Community Development Corporation, which continues to implement the plan today. More recently, Price advised the city in its creation of a Black Heritage Cultural District along Michigan Avenue. An expert in brownfield redevelopment, Price served on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency committee for urban brownfields across New York State and New Jersey.
George Arthur, former president of the Buffalo Common Council and councilmember for 26 years, still calls on Price. “Al Price has truly been one of the tallest trees,” Arthur wrote via email. “There have been times when we needed advice on a project and someone to tell us not what we want to hear but what we needed to know — the good and the bad. Al is that person.”
Dean Robert Shibley says there is a generosity to Price’s service, which included three terms as chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning.
“In an institution where faculty are rewarded for their own research, Al was devoted to the collective learning enterprise,” Shibley said. “We are grateful for his astute leadership, inspirational teaching, dedicated community service and great friendship.”
Often, it was simple gestures that were remembered the most.
Ashima Krishna, assistant professor of urban planning, said it was a simple gesture from Price that put her at ease during a bewildering first year on the faculty. “You invited me out to lunch, taking time when you didn’t need to, to welcome a new faculty member. You made me feel like I was part of something,” she said.
Offering a final teaching moment, Price closed his lecture as he always did for his students — with a bit of poetry. Citing T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartettes,” Price reminded the audience that the essence of teaching — and learning — is the quest:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.”