At our Landscape Surgery meeting yesterday Felix Driver mentioned the death of Neil Smith. I wanted to add a few words. I heard about Neil Smith’s death pretty much at the moment when I was entering yet another entry by his name in the index for a book on Geographic Though. I think any such book cannot help but have multiple entries in his index under his name. His work on gentrification was seminal but even more important (in my view) was his higher level theorisation of the production of space and nature through processes of uneven development.
When I first started attending AAG conferences in 1988 Neil Smith was always one of the start attractions for a postgraduate student with radical inclinations. I loved to watch him say it as he saw hit with rarely a mention of words like “ambiguous” or “ambivalent”. Neil knew what he wanted to say and said it. He was a great performer. I have several memories of him that go beyond his academic abilities however. The first was his presence in the audience for a session at an International Geographical Congress conference in Washington DC as I, a young postgraduate student, fumbled my way thought an attempt at a theoretical paper on place and ideology. Also in the lineup was Anssi Paasi, who was similarly at the beginning of his career. Neil spoke to me afterwards. I was giddy with the presence of a “big name” geographer who I admired. He congratulated me on some of the talk and gave me some advice on what he saw as some shortcomings. he did this gently and generously. He could have not been in the room (there was no-one on the agenda who came with an existing reputation) and he could have just left but he saw fit to engage with some young scholars in a way that was no obvious benefit to him. He made me feel like I might just be able to succeed in this line of work. This was a lesson I try (and often fail) to learn from.
Later in life, when a lecturer at Aberystwyth, I wrote to Neil to ask for his help as a guest for our inaugural New York field trip. I wanted to take students around the Lower East Side and who better to hear about this from than Neil? He said yes, gave us several hours of his time on a cold day, and left some of the students (and me, still) with stars in their eyes. One of those students was Pete Adey (see his posting on http://rhulgeopolitics.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/walks-and-memories/). I imagine Neil spent many hours performing this task for free (we bought him Shepherd’s Pie at a favourite Irish pub afterwards – no fancy wine bars!) following many similar requests. Again -there was little obvious benefit for Neil in sharing in this way. How many of us would give up our hours for some undergraduates visiting from abroad?
I was very sad to hear of Neil’s death. I am sure we will all miss his spirit, his politics, his intellectual gifts, and, most of all, his generosity.