Inspirational Urbanist, Compassionate Comrade: Neil Smith 1954-2012
December 13, 2012 3 Comments
A companion tribute by Gordon MacLeod to the open access memorial forum that appears in Volume 30, Issue 6.
Gordon MacLeod, Durham University
Neil Smith was held in special regard by a range of communities: activist, political, scholarly, and student, as well through his numerous wide-ranging friendships. As the news broke about his passing on 29th September 2012, a sequence of warmly generous and heartfelt postings and tributes quickly appeared on the CUNY websites. It was notable how their connective tissue often ranged from local neighborhoods such as Harlem to ones that stretched globally to Asia and Latin America. Indeed in a poignant way they mirrored his own warm embrace and reflected how his open geographical sensibility tallied with an acute appreciation of spatial scale. It was a glimpse into how Neil meant so much for so many of us. Our collective sense of wretched disbelief was matched only by one of terrible loss and sorrow. But amid the grief, many also felt able to recognize the extraordinary contribution of a courageous and unique scholar-activist. In this brief tribute, I discuss Neil’s contribution to critical urban geographical inquiry. It will inevitably be shaped by my own awestruck encounters with Neil and his pioneering work. But I write it quietly confident that I am one of many across the world whose own humble endeavors to research the inconstant landscapes of uneven urban development, the politics of land-use and gentrification, and the rise of a revanchist political climate throughout metropolitan regions have been inspired by Neil’s brilliant writings and exhilarating conference presentations.
My own engagement with Neil’s urban writings emerged only after I’d completed my PhD. Shortly after being welcomed as a lecturer by the Institute of Geography at Aberystwyth University, and while preparing a lecture on gentrification early in 1998, I began reading The New Urban Frontier. An informative, witty, and generous Preface is followed by Chapter 1 entitled “Class Struggle on Avenue B”. Here, the reader is immediately gripped by the magnificently evocative prose, before being ushered straight into the heart of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and informed of a riot that had erupted in Tompkins Square Park in August 1988. It was waged between a loose alliance of squatters, housing activists, anti-gentrification protestors, artists, and homeless people and the officers of New York Police Department operating under instructions from the Mayor’s Office. Some reading this tribute may recall the chapter’s detailed analysis of the shocking brutality deployed by NYPD to ‘reclaim’ the park, and how this dramatic event was the precursor to the temporary closure of Tompkins in June 1991, and the forced eviction of hundreds of homeless people. Neil documents how the campaigners presented ‘housing as a human right’: in reply, though, Mayor David Dinkins (Democrat) declared that Tompkins Park had been ‘stolen’ from the city by ‘the homeless’; and that, moreover, “The park is a park… It is not a place to live” (Smith, 1996: 6). But with the city’s homeless policy in crisis, there were few alternative ‘places to live’ on offer to the Park evictees: and they began forming small shantytowns elsewhere in Manhattan, or dispersing to reside on bridges or beyond the island. Meanwhile, now cleared of homeless people, the rampant gentrification of the Lower East Side could proceed apace. Even at this stage, readers of the book will have marveled at the quality of Neil Smith’s elegant and absorbing writing; his coolly reasoned analysis adroitly blending Marxist theory, secondary academic sources, housing statistics, and various media; and how he assimilates this with impassioned indignation and a sense of moral outrage at the abhorrent treatment of his own city’s poorest citizens by a stern post-liberal local state. It is critical geography of the highest caliber.
This stunning portrayal of class struggle and the fearsome power of the repressive state apparatus strikes a brilliant note: for it reveals how gentrification and the social and cultural displacement of vulnerable households, and in turn rising homelessness, are intricately related in shaping urban society and space. It is a connection notably absent from the erstwhile influential ‘filtering’ approach to gentrification largely informed by neoclassical economics as well as liberal theories underlining the role of ‘consumer’ preferences in precipitating an emancipatory ‘back to the city’ movement of people. Brilliant analytically but also procedurally: for the reader holds these disquieting images – and I suspect their own sense of moral indignation – as a vivid backdrop when then encountering the subsequent theoretical and empirical inquiries into gentrification. Here, while detailing the ‘revitalization’ of the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia between the 1950s and 1970s, Neil avers that gentrification theory necessitates an appreciation of the various institutions – developers, financial lenders, and crucially the state – capable of and prepared to invest large-scale capital and whose interventions were pivotal in reshaping the built environment of the late twentieth century city. His analysis also reveals how the most decisive ‘consumer preference’ for all parties is the need to realize a profit on a sound financial investment. But of course the urban land and property markets are shot through with unequal relations of wealth, class, race, gender, and sexuality: relations that are brought into closer analytical focus through the concept of the Rent Gap. This refers to the disparity between the actual ground rent currently being realized through a given plot of land – oftentimes its buildings may have begun to endure under-investment or devalorization – and what some significant agents (prime suspects being prowling investors and urban governments armed with the power of eminent domain) might identify as the potential ground rent which could be generated under what developers and planners euphemistically term a ‘higher and better use’.
This pioneering analysis paved the way for more far-reaching inquiries into how different zones of metropolitan space are valorized for profitable development and beautified as sites of ‘urban renaissance’: classically gentrified rows of town houses but also disused industrial buildings and derelict docks reinvented as creative quarters and waterfront pleasure-domes. But the rent gap also offers guidelines as to why this geography of profit-oriented investment and exchange value can trump the interests, aspirations, and lived use-values of long-established households and indeed whole communities who are oftentimes left stricken and displaced: all part of a process whereby the developers and gentrifiers – the ‘new urban pioneers’ – work assiduously “to scrub the city clean of is working-class geography and history” (Smith, 1996: 26). Neil goes on to contend that “If gentrification is emancipatory political practice, it is difficult to see it as anything other than political activism against the working class” (ibid: 43). Such symbolic violence and cultural displacement is writ large in analogous state-orchestrated endeavors to induce ‘social mix’, ‘Homeowner Zones’, or ‘Housing Market Renewal’ in neighborhoods deemed ‘undesirable’ (Crump, 2002; Uitermark et al, 2007; MacLeod and Johnstone, 2012). Rent gap theory simultaneously raises awareness of the zones which might already be ‘on the cusp’, seemingly comfortable but perhaps waning amid a lack of continuous investment. It is within this context that we can view the fluctuating fortunes of different neighborhoods and districts through Neil’s (1982) simple but powerful metaphor about the see-saw geography of uneven development. It is also remarkable to note that much of this analysis was originally penned in the late 1970s when Neil was still a graduate student being supervised by David Harvey (Smith, 1979a; 1979b).
Moreover, his research on gentrification has undoubtedly inspired numerous geographers and scholars of urban studies to investigate its incidence with a renewed critical vitality (Lees, Slater, Wyly, 2008; Slater, 2006; 2012). Indeed, what the CUNY tributes and others reveal as much as anything is the way in which his courageous writings, innovative teaching, and his interventions against gentrification have actually paved the way for many to undertake research and teaching previously deemed quite unthinkable or perhaps ‘too political’. Among several notable incidences of “without Neil’s writings / teaching / support, I wouldn’t have pursued my own research” posted on CUNY, Eric Clark openly acknowledges how reading Neil’s “Toward a theory of gentrification” paper back in 1979 actually “changed his life”: Eric was thus inspired to research the historical geography of gentrification in Malmo, Sweden, and subsequently to publish what is probably the definitive study of rent gaps (Clark, 1988). While Eric himself has gone on to inspire others, such as my friends Anders Lund Hansen and Henrik Larsen, his posted tribute also revealed how over time he came to regard Neil as a wonderful mix of “hero, guide, teacher, and friend”. And in their landmark book Gentrification, Loretta Lees, Tom Slater and Elvin Wyly each pay tribute to Neil’s intellectual inspiration but also his unflinching support and generosity. In a touching moment, Loretta thanks Neil “for meeting with me in the Lower East Side back in 1988, just before the Tompkins Square Park riots when I was an undergraduate student embarking on my dissertation on gentrification. [And further, how] That meeting enthused me to continue studying and critiquing gentrification”. Alongside this book, Loretta, Elvin, and Tom have furnished urban studies with their own outstanding and influential contributions on gentrification: and doubtless they are among many who have drawn on Neil’s inspiration in ongoing endeavors to uncover the unequal asymmetries of power and the geography of injustice in cities.
It is worth noting that New Urban Frontier has a subtitle: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. With characteristic humor and sincerity, several years after its publication Neil revealed how his then editor at Routledge vetoed his own preferred title of “The Revanchist City”, insisting “that it was a cardinal rule of publishing that one should never give a book a title where bookshop browsers need a dictionary to know what it is about” (Smith, 2009: 3). To be sure, it is a concept demanding definition: literally Revanche is the French for revenge. And the original Revanchists comprised a bourgeois political movement that mobilized in France during the last three decades of the nineteenth century, incensed by the relative liberalism of the Second Republic and fearful of a socialist uprising on similar lines to the Paris Commune of 1870-71. They thereby waged a concerted revenge against the working class and what had become a discredited royalty: this was “a right-wing movement built on populist nationalism and devoted to a vengeful and reactionary retaking of the country” (Smith, 1996: 45). Exercising due circumspection, Neil draws a parallel between late nineteenth century France and late twentieth century New York: beginning with the struggle waged in Tompkins Square Park and the bourgeois-political elite’s populist appeal to moral order and a reactionary ‘retaking’ of the park from those homeless and dispossessed perceived to have ‘stolen’ it from decent law-abiding New Yorkers. Rising homelessness was met with a concerted ‘crackdown’ against their very presence on the streets. At the same time Neil’s former PhD student Don Mitchell (1997), was revealing how elites from San Francisco to Baltimore were embroiled in a brutal and merciless crusade to sweep the streets and public spaces of various homeless communities: the very people who – thanks to an inhumane real estate market – are denied the sanctuary of their own private space. Neil’s influence is quite evident in Don’s brilliant and impassioned research, which itself has become a touchstone for critical urban geographical inquiry.
The election of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1994 was to see the revanchist atmosphere of New York’s significantly augmented. The callousness exhibited in Tompkins Square in the late 1980s was given a wider license as a ‘relaxation’ of regulations on police powers enabled officers to pursue with ‘Zero Tolerance’ and a militarist zeal homeless people and indeed anyone else deemed unworthy of fitting an identikit bourgeois imagery. In his 1998 paper in Social Text, “Giuliani Times: the Revanchist 1990s”, Neil analyzed how, facing a £3.1 billion budget deficit, Giuliani vowed unequivocally to cut public services – especially welfare to the poor (now inscribed as ‘workfare’), public housing construction, and the city’s public university system – while also initiating more stringent anti-immigrant legislation. Indeed in his address to a small coterie of newspaper editors, the Mayor momentously revealed his aspiration to encourage the poorest of the city’s population, of course those most dependent on public services, to move out of the city. Shrinkage of the poor population would be a ‘good thing’ for the city, Giuliani suggested. It is in this context not least that we can understand how:
Revanchism blends revenge with reaction. It represents a reaction against the basic assumption of liberal urban policy, namely that government bears some responsibility for ensuring a decent minimum level of daily life for everyone. That political assumption is now largely replaced by a vendetta against the most oppressed – workers and ‘welfare mothers’, immigrants and gays, people of color and homeless people, squatters, anyone who demonstrates in public. They are excoriated for having stolen New York from a white middle class that sees the city as its birthright. Blaming the victim has been raised from a common political tactic to a matter of established policy (Smith, 1998: 1).
Neil characterized such visceral revanchism as the ‘ugly cultural politics of neoliberal globalization’. And as states and governments at all scales drew on neoliberal reason to vindicate their own versions of an increasingly predatory mode of capitalist accumulation, and policies such as workfare and zero tolerance policing were furiously exported across the world (Smith, 2009), revanchism appeared to be an unfolding urban political geography identified by numerous researchers across the world. Examples ranged from a class and racially displacing purification of strictly tourist-oriented spaces (Swanson, 2007) to the proliferation of elite led slum redevelopments whereby bourgeois visions of a ‘higher and better use’ encourage a cynical manipulation of the rent gap allied to state powers of eminent domain and a stern revanchist ‘disciplining’ of slum dwellers (Whitehead and More, 2007). And while, like many of us, Neil was excited by the wave of Occupy protests that surfaced late in 2011, the brutal military tactics waged on civil activists in Wall Street and Zuccotti Park – and the Department of Homeland Security’s sinister ‘silencing’ of journalists reporting the events (Wolf 2011) – offered a cautionary reminder about how contemporary struggles for the ‘right to the city’ and democracy are so often now met with a malevolent revanchist response. With a keen eye on other scales, Neil had also been examining the onset of a global or planetary revanchism as a narrative of revenge and ‘retaking’ had punctuated the US’s sense of divine purpose in the global ‘war on terror’ (Smith, 2009). And there was little doubt that its ‘ugly cultural politics’ surfaced with repulsive toxicity in the US Presidential elections of 2012, as the reactionary right wing of the Republican Party exhibited ‘white revanchism’ in its plea to recapture the ‘country of the Founding Fathers’.
The cautionary approach of Neil’s editor would surely have been well intentioned back in 1996. But The New Urban Frontier’s breathtakingly insightful investigation into the emerging fin-de-siecle urbanism has offered a conceptual framework that does much to uncover the enigmatic sources and strategies of political power in cities: one that has inspired many of us to research the diverse expressions of revanchism and a punitive urbanism in what is now a majority urban world. And returning momentarily to my own initial engagement with the book, it is an extraordinarily inspiration for student debate (Slater, 2012), indeed like so many of Neil’s written contributions. They will surely continue to inspire us and future generations. But for those of us who knew and admired him, it still remains hard to reconcile this source of comfort with the mournful sense of losing a singular gem of a scholar, activist and human being. I think this is in part because his prodigious intellect, rapier-like originality of thought, and extraordinary energy – characteristics which in some cases can be a little bit intimidating when on full display mode – were just so closely blended with his tremendous warmth; his distinguished generosity in support of so many of us; his compassion for many causes (Neil didn’t indulge in ‘compassion fatigue’); and of course his desire to raise our consciousness about so many geographies of injustice, possibilities for redressing these, and confronting the powers that may be generating them. And not to forget his unforgettable bear-hug, love of life, fun and people. As my good friend Tom Slater (2012) has remarked in a moving and beautifully evocative tribute to Neil:
He had this incredible ability to draw people into his unique way of understanding the world, to the point where academic reputations and gravitas were totally irrelevant. It was politics and ideas that mattered.
On behalf of urban scholars and activists across the world, thank you for your immeasurable contribution Neil; for the wonderful inspiration, dedicated support, love and comradeship.
Note: I would like to thank Deb Cowen and Stuart Elden for their guidance in writing this tribute.
Clark E (1988) The rent gap and transformation of the built environment: case studies in Malmo 1860-1985 Geografiska Annaler B 70 241-54 Lees L, Slater T and Wyly E (2008) Gentrification (New York, Routledge)
MacLeod G and Johnstone C (2012) Stretching urban renaissance: privatizing space, civilizing place, summoning ‘community’ International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 36 1-30
Mitchell, D. (1997) The annihilation of space by law: The roots and implications of anti-homeless laws in the United States Antipode 29 303-35
Slater T (2006) The eviction of critical perspectives from gentrification research International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 30 737-57
Slater T (2012) Rose Street and Revolution: A tribute to Neil Smith (1954-2012) http://www.geos.ed.ac.uk/homes/tslater/tributetoNeilSmith.html Smith N (1979a) Toward a theory of gentrification; a back to the city movement by capital not people Journal of the American Planning Association 45 538-548
Smith N (1979b) Gentrification and capital: theory, practice and ideology in Society Hill Antipode 11 24-35
Smith N (1982) Gentrification and Uneven Development Economic Geography 58 139-155
Smith N (1996) The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (Routledge, London)
Smith N (1998) Giuliani time: the revanchist 1990s Social Text 57 1-20
Smith N (2002) New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy Antipode 34:3 427-450
Smith N (2009) Revanchist planet: Regeneration and the axis of co-evilism The Urban Reinventors Online Journal 03/09
Swanson K (2007) Revanchist urbanism heads south: The regulation of indigenous beggars and street vendors in Ecuador Antipode 39 708-728
Uitermark J, Duyvendak JW & Kleinhans R (2007) Gentrification as a governmental strategy: social control and social cohesion in Hoogvliet, Rotterdam Environment and Planning A 39 125-141
Whitehead J and More N (2007) Revanchism in Mumbai? Political Economy of Rent Gaps and Urban Restructuring in a Global City Economic and Political Weekly 42:25, 2428-2434
Wolf N (2011) “The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy” The Guardian 25th November