The Doctoral Program in Political Science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York mourns the loss of our treasured colleague Tom Waters, age 57, to complications from the COVID-19 virus on Saturday, April 4. Tom epitomized the special qualities of our program, particularly in his dedication to using social science analysis to dissect the sources of inequality and exploitation in urban society and to address them by fostering social justice through community organization and progressive legislation.
A graduate of Yale University, Tom spent twenty years as a writer, editor, community broadcaster, housing and tenant organizer, and policy analyst before joining our Program in the fall of 2009, while continuing to serve as a housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society and a board member of New York State Tenants and Neighbors. In the words of his life partner Hilary Callahan, “Tom’s brilliant mind and generous heart made him one of the most effective and respected experts and advocates for affordable housing for all New Yorkers, and more broadly for justice, peace and the protection of our beautiful yet imperiled planet, with New York its greatest global city.” His keenly analytic reports for the Community Service Society (https://www.cssny.org/staff/entry/thomas-waters) and his incisive journalism (https://citylimits.org/author/tom-waters/) informed policy makers, opinion-shapers, and community activists all over the city and beyond.
Less widely known but equally important to us were Tom’s quiet leadership in learning about and researching urban policy and politics at the Graduate Center and his teaching these subjects to his urban studies students at Barnard, Marymount Manhattan, and City College. As his superficially ironic yet profoundly serious Twitter handle, @slowboring, indicates, he was a modest person who wore his intelligence lightly. (The phrase comes from Max Weber, who describes politics as the slow boring – or drilling – of hard boards.) When he spoke, he revealed a penetrating mind that had carefully considered the problems at hand and he had wise, revealing, and often unexpected things to say about them. His GC colleagues deeply loved, admired, and respected him. He was always willing to listen carefully, provide thoughtful advice, and be supportive. One colleague noted how he had helped her instantly crystallize her dissertation topic while they were listening to a conference presentation. He infused his intellectual work with efforts to build solidarity among his peers, helping to organize the Barnard Contingent Faculty UAW Local 2110.
Tom’s scholarly work was still developing, but he had already made important contributions. His ethnographic study of decision-making in a Manhattan community board deftly explored how the interplay between bureaucratic expertise and community engagement limited the scope of debate around land use decision-making. A quantitative study of neighborhood trajectories across New York City developed a more nuanced understanding of the forces driving neighborhood change. His not-yet-completed doctoral dissertation examined how the decisions and practices of city housing policy and program administrators played an important role in the disparate development paths of two comparable low-income New York City neighborhoods. In his application to our doctoral program, he described his hope that his dissertation research would link “practical policy questions with a richer account of the social, economic, and political lives of the people affected by the policies.” His work has done just that.
Tom’s friends, colleagues, and family often describe him as beloved. He was kind and strong and devoted; a fan of punk rock, anti-folk, jazz, and opera; an explorer of the city’s nooks and crannies; and a pillar of his many communities. His family members Hilary and Daniel always counted on him for support and fun. His graduate student friends and professors benefited greatly from having him in their lives. We are heartbroken at his loss