It has been 10 days since I heard about the death of geographer Neil Smith, and this is the at least the tenth time I have tried to sit down and write something about my old friend.
I first met Neil about 28 years ago, when he was a newly-minted assistant professor on the sinking ship that was the geography program at Columbia and I was foolish enough to consider a major the subject it is entirely possible that I was the last geography major to come out of Columbia College – within a year of my graduation, the program was closed). Neil was my advisor, mentor, collaborator and very good friend. He was, pretty much single-handedly, responsible for my love of geography, the built environment and all manner of land-use issues. Just about everything that you read here, and all the other stuff I do, has been shaped by – or is in response to – work that Neil and I did all that time ago.
In the late 80s Neil & I wrote about the spatial impact of the deindustrialization of the United States and even collaborated on a grant application to study the gentrification of the lower east side (which at the time, seemed imminent). As it turns out, we didn’t get the grant, and the gentrification we wanted to document was somewhat delayed by the real estate recession of the late 80s/early 90s.
In the early 90s, I almost went to grad school to study with Neil (by then at Rutgers), but chose instead to pursue a different path in studying the built environment. I’ve never regretted that decision, but for the opportunity I missed to study with him.
If you want a sense of Neil’s tremendous human and radical spirit, look no further than this video of him singing then socialist ABCs on a cold picket line (“A” is for alienation…). But I’ll leave you with this 1984 video of him reading USA Today – mainly because it dates to the year that I met him (skip to about the 11:00 mark and hear Neil discuss the old CDR bar on 119th Street).
I will miss him terribly.