Neil Smith died of liver and kidney failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York on September 29, 2012, at the age of 58. He was Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), where he founded and for a number of years directed the interdisciplinary Center for Place, Culture, and Politics.
Smith was born and raised in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland. He attended the University of St. Andrews (with a year spent at the University of Pennsylvania, 1974-1975), taking a B.Sc. degree in 1977, to be followed by a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1982, where his advisor was David Harvey. He taught in the geography department at Columbia University from 1982-90 before moving to Rutgers.
Smith was a revolutionary force in the academic discipline of geography and beyond. A polarizing figure, his sharp wit and direct style could be taken harshly by those whose work was the aim of his critiques, while others recognized him as a role model for politically committed scholars. He influenced a generation of critical geographers and was one of the early organizers of the International Critical Geography Group. Smith’s work was widely read outside the discipline of geography, including in such fields as sociology, urban studies, anthropology and cultural studies and contributed to the “spatial turn” in the social sciences and humanities.
Entering a field often considered an intellectual backwater, Smith’s insightful scholarship and cogent arguments would imbue geography with an intellectual – and political – importance it had rarely before possessed. Originally on track to become a glacial geomorphologist (based on his love of Scottish landscapes), Smith’s interests gravitated toward the dynamics of urban change under the influence of St. Andrews lecturer Joe Doherty. Smith’s widely accepted “rent-gap” thesis, first published in a landmark article in the Journal of the American Planning Association in 1979 (based on his undergraduate thesis at St. Andrews), made clear that gentrification was a new strategy of capital accumulation actively restructuring urban space. Extended study of gentrification in New York City led to Smith’s influential book, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (1982), in which he argued that the dynamics of gentrification was rooted as much in culture (“revanchism” or class revenge, as the bourgeoisie sought to take back “their” city) as it was in economics. He linked the rise of zero-tolerance policing and the other “quality of life” initiatives of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to social changes taking place around the globe, jumping scales from a “localized urban anomaly” to a globalized “urban strategy.”
Smith’s arguments about gentrification were part of a much larger project examining the production of both nature and geographical space within capitalism. In Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space (1984), Smith shows that nature is not simply transformed but actually produced, an insight foundational for the whole field of political ecology. He argued that to understand the workings of capitalism, we have to understand the way capitalism produces the very spaces that make its existence possible, a concept now central to much geographical work. Together his theories of the production of nature, space, and scale can be said to add up to a new, remarkably cogent theory of uneven capitalist development.
Smith’s later work examined powerful mid-twentieth century American geographer, university president, and advisor to presidents, Isaiah Bowman (a primary architect of Woodrow Wilson’s positions that led to the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations), and led eventually to the publication of American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (2003), for which he received the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Biography in 2004 and the AAG’s Globe Book Award for Public Understanding of Geography, also in 2004. Drawing together his various insights and a lifetime of Marxist scholarship, his final book was The Endgame of Globalization (2005).
Smith was also very active in organizing or co-organizing conferences and symposia, especially those of CUNY. He was frequently invited to give lectures both in the U.S. and abroad. He recently served as Visiting Professor at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), and in August 2012 he gave the keynote address, “For (Political) Climate Change” at the Geographing the Future Conference, hosted by the National University of Ireland, Galway. Smith was co-editor of the influential journal Society and Space and served on the editorial boards of Social Text and Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, among others.
Neil Smith received distinguished scholarship honors from the AAG in 2000.