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BEN GRANT

Graduating Class: 1983
Current Position: independent consultant
Education / School 1: Columbia
I tend to take my French for granted, in much the same way
you tend to take your first language for granted. That’s how effective bilingual education is. It’s only when I meet a native speaker and latch onto them, hungry for practice, that I realize what a gift I got from Ecole Bilingue. “Wow,” comes the response, “Tu parles français sans accent.”

I visit Ecole Bilingue once in a while for alumni events and anniversaries. It’s a strange experience. On the one hand, it has shrunk, in the usual manner of childhood places. Everything looks familiar, suffused with memories, but in Disneyland 7/8 scale. But coupled with this familiar feeling is it’s opposite: this place is HUGE. Building after building that I never knew. It seems incredible that you no longer have to line up “deux-par-
deux” for the long march to the Big Yard. Above all, there is a sense of this quirky little experiment having become a real
institution, and a permanent presence.

But I’m supposed to be tooting my own horn here, proving that alumni live and breathe 20 years after EB. I started with
three years in the Berkeley Public Schools, then four at College Prep in Oakland. Then I followed my sister to New York City, to enroll at Columbia College. I have wonderful memories of singing through the American songbook with Liz [Elizabeth Lamson], EB’s first music teacher. Throughout high school and into college, I studied piano, oboe, and voice. I sang in a capella groups, played in orchestras and rock bands, performed in musical theater. Once I returned to the Bay Area, I joined the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, a classical chorus, under the direction of my first music teacher (and dad) Dick Grant.

I started off as a music major, but where I wanted to make music, they wanted me to study it. Meanwhile, I was becoming interested in environmental issues, particularly those at the intersection of people and the places they live. I set about designing a major (against a great deal of sage advice) that would allow me to study environmental issues through a mix of cultural studies, science, and policy. After a year off climbing mountains and doing environmental work in Costa Rica, I returned to Columbia College, where the administration grudgingly allowed me my home-grown major.

When I graduated, I took a job at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, teaching composting to gardeners, teachers, and institutional managers. We were funded by the Department of Sanitation, and had to cover all of Brooklyn, so not only did I get to go to this beautiful garden every day, I saw every part of the Borough. The whole time, both at work and at home in Manhattan, I was becoming entranced with the city, first as the great exception in the car-addicted American landscape, but increasingly for its own sake, as this magical living artifact that could be read and explored and lived in and fought over.

So that was it. I applied to City Planning school. Conveniently enough, Berkeley has one of the top programs, and I was pining for coffee, burritos and hills. So I came home. There turns out to be an awful lot of work to be done here, as poorly-planned growth pushes deep into the central valley, and our freeways grind into gridlock. I got a Master of City Planning degree from Cal, with a concentration in Urban Design. Urban Design deals with the physical and aesthetic relationships of buildings, streets, transportation and public space. I don’t design buildings,
but I might write design guidelines for a district or help connect people to transit with streetscape improvements.

After some time exploring the cities of Europe and the Middle East, I came back and went to work for SMWM, a large design firm in San Francisco. It was an incredible place to work, and a real trial by fire. SMWM has worked on some of the most exciting architecture and planning projects around—from the Ferry Building to Boston’s Big Dig to Mission Bay. Much of my work was on Downtown San Jose, where we did a 20-year vision plan among many other projects. I also became involved in policy and design work aimed at integrating transportation and land use in the Silicon Valley, where sprawling development patterns have
made for a bleak and inefficient landscape.

In the last year, I have made the leap to working as an independent consultant, so I can be flexible enough to pursue music and planning advocacy work. It has been an exciting and scary year, but I’m as busy as I’ve ever been. I am more involved than ever in music. I write, sing, and play bass in a rock band called Pony Boy. We perform regularly and we plan to make a recording this winter. In November, I will be traveling to Berlin with The Pacific Mozart Ensemble to perform with the Deutsche Symphonie under Kent Nagano.
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