When Harvey Gantt arrived in Cambridge in 1968 to study for his master’s degree in city planning, he was no stranger to turbulence. In 1963, after a federal court suit, he had been admitted to Clemson University as its first African-American student. The ’60s were a transformational time to be in Cambridge, too, with the convergence of a war, a presidential election, and student protests on college campuses nationwide.
“Somehow we managed to continue to focus on urban policy, which seemed to be in vogue at that time simply because so much was happening in cities,” says Gantt. “My education at MIT broadened my notion of what architects could do, particularly if they understood the importance of what’s happening in cities around the country.”
Gantt’s focus has remained constant. After earning his MIT degree, he spent a year helping develop federally funded new communities. In 1971, he moved to Charlotte, NC, where he cofounded Gantt Huberman Architects; it served as an influential force in that city’s growth for more than three decades. The firm designed Charlotte’s first neighborhood center for low-income communities, the first major downtown mixed-use development project, and the Charlotte Transportation Center, a countywide bus terminal that has become a catalyst for major redevelopment.
An appointment to fill a vacant city council seat in 1974 thrust Gantt into politics. He served on the Charlotte City Council from 1974 until 1983, when he was elected as the city’s first African-American mayor. Gantt also ran two hard-fought U.S. Senate campaigns against Jesse Helms in 1990 and 1996.
From 1995 to 2000, Gantt chaired the National Capital Planning Commission, the U.S. government’s central planning agency for federal land and buildings in the DC area. Under his leadership, the commission adopted a strategic plan for city monuments and selected sites on the National Mall for the Martin Luther King Memorial and the World War II Memorial.
He and his wife, Cindy, raised three daughters and a son and remain engaged and passionate residents of Charlotte. Though he no longer holds public office, Gantt is still involved in the Democratic Party on the local and the national levels while leading his firm to address issues of urban development. “At my age, one starts to think about retiring,” he says, “but I’m energized by coming in to work every day.”
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