Maps and Chaps

••• The New Geography Reaches Critical Mass

As a young lad in Gillingham, England, the critical geographer David Harvey often tried to run away from home. His conscience always got the best of him, though. "So I decided to run away in my imagination," he reminisced last year, and took to roaming the perforated vistas of his stamp collection, where countries were safely imprinted with the British monarch. Growing older, Harvey dreamed of sailing on the naval destroyers he toured with his father, a Chatham shipyard foreman. He limned maps of the empire and, as teenage wanderlust set in, cycled the Kent countryside.

If empire only knew what it had wrought. A world away and a lifetime later, Harvey is one of our keenest combatants for social justice in globalizing urban spaces. And though he'll always have "a couple of toes firmly stuck" in the Gillingham mud, the once peripatetic youth has now planted his other foot at an auspicious address for the study of space and place.

That would be 365 Fifth Avenue, where Harvey took up residence in the anthropology program at the City University of New York's graduate center last semester, joining a geographical think tank in the making. The center recently stole two of geography's marquee names—Harvey, who decamped from his longtime post at Johns Hopkins, and Neil Smith, lured from Rutgers last year to be professor of anthropology and geography. Toss in this year's $890,000 Ford Foundation grant to CUNY's Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, and you've got what Chancellor Matthew Goldstein tags "the premier destination for the anthropological study of global urban issues."

Illustration by Charlene Potts

Not that the graduate center has a geography program. Among New York City institutions, in fact, only Hunter College boasts a full-fledged, autonomous geography department. There is no doctoral program in geography in New York City. Making matters worse, a spate of departmental shutdowns since the 1950s has left Dartmouth the only Ivy League school with a geography department still standing. It is a discipline, some say, with an inferiority complex.

"Geography has a low profile in the U.S.," says Cindi Katz, who teaches in the graduate center's environmental psychology program and has helped mastermind the transformation of the blocky former B. Altman building on 34th Street to something like critical geography's Hagia Sophia. "We all like to think that's changing."

And so it is. But rote recitation of the trade routes of Turkistan this is not. "Geography was a service discipline," Harvey says. "It served the military and it served the state. But in the '60s and '70s some of us started to take a line that was anti-capitalist, anti-state, and anti-military. We opened up a space for what you might call a critical intellectual geography.

"It's got more of an intellectual kudos now," he adds. "It's taken a long time."

Indeed, a growing number of scholars drawing on geography's radical past—the anarchist Kropotkin was a geographer, and so was the French Communard Élisée Reclus—have given the discipline not just prestige but an academic blood transfusion. Wielding a trenchant cultural politics and looking at space through a neo-Marxist lens, they're taking geography on a turn toward "critical intellectual citizenship." Last February, for example, the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers drew 4700 people to midtown Manhattan to hear jam-packed talks from the likes of Marxist scholar Marshall Berman and attend sessions on such avant-hip topics as "Landscapes of Murder" and "Sonic Geographies: The Cultural Politics of Sound." It was the 97-year-old association's largest meeting ever.

So how did geography get back on the map? "For much of the 20th century, it was possible to think that the geography of the world was relatively fixed," Neil Smith explains. "But if you think of the world as a giant jigsaw puzzle, the puzzle was thrown into the air in the '60s, and now the pieces are starting to come down. Only the pieces that are coming down are no longer the pieces that went up." As battles over globalization and environmental policy became headline news, geographers moderated a volatile debate over space and place. "Cultural geography in the 1990s, to understate the case, exploded," according to Don Mitchell, a geographer at Syracuse University. And don't discount the underdog appeal. "We like being something that constantly has to be rediscovered," Mitchell adds. The hand feeding that canine, however, is still largely connected to the military-industrial complex, as the feverish growth in recent years of geographical information systems (GIS) has turned map-based data-crunching into a growth industry. "GIS is the tail that wagged the geographer's dog," Mitchell says. "A lot of people see that as the salvation of geography."

Including students who may want a paycheck when they emerge debt-laden from grad school. "If you have a degree in GIS, you'll get a job immediately," says Richard Peet, a geographer at Clark University. "We lose a lot of good people to that." Not one to be daunted by such matters, Peet is currently working with 10 students on a book about the WTO, World Bank, and IMF—they call them the "unholy trinity"—and says that despite the brain drain, geography's radical camp is drawing students like never before. "Thirty years ago they never would even think about geography," Peet says. "Now it's almost a natural place for them."

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