Remembering Ed Soja…before he became famous: a very personal note

By Costis Hadjimichalis

The sad news about Ed’s passing came to us from his wife Maureen. We had sporadic reports from her about the deterioration of his illness, but his death shocked. I (we) lost a great man.

Unlike most of his students and colleagues, my first encounter with Ed was in a semi-professional singing group called “Song of Earth” in Venice, California. I had just enrolled in my first quarter (fall 1974) at the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning (GSAUP) UCLA for a MA degree, my first time in the USA and LA. Being a good singer and amateur guitarist, I was attracted by the cultural diversity of the group and quickly, as newcomer from Europe, became close friends with many of them.  With his size and deep baritone voice, Ed made an immediate impression and soon after we ended up drinking wine in his house, where I met Maureen. Since those days, a long-lasting friendship began, bringing together our families, children and friends in various locations, in LA, Athens, Thessaloniki, Naxos, Milos, Syros, London, Maynooth, until the last time I saw him, Maureen, Erika and Christopher with their families and children in LA, during his Life Achievement Award ceremony at the AAG, 2013.

Coming from the seven-year Greek dictatorship with many radical ideas, but not always clearly thought, in Ed’s classes a new world opened up for me in three directions: critical geography; the notion of space in every aspect of human interaction; and the practice of rigorous research. Soja required extensive reading from his students and was quite theoretical, but he presented the material in an innovative way. The teaching consisted mostly of lectures, but I could listen to him for hours with his deep booming voice. Ed was a captivating performer in public lectures, always giving priority to Logos, and less to Images, but able to sustain the audience’s interest throughout. Particularly in his urbanization courses (sometimes with John Friedmann) he developed an early innovative approach on how cities came to be, which led him later in the 1980s and 1990s to his postmetropolis concept. In the early 1970s Ed moved from his political geography of modernization and nation-building in Africa, to his socio-spatial dialectic, and later to his notion of spatiality. A crucial intellectual bridge between the two of us was a fair exchange of knowledge from 1974 onwards. He introduced me to geography (I was coming from an architectural background and I knew nothing about it) and I introduced him (together with Dina Vaiou) to Henri Lefebvre, Raymond Ledrut and the French Marxist school of space production (including also Jan Lojkine, Alain Lipietz, René Dulong, Francis Goddard among others). After the fall of dictatorships in Southern Europe, a promising period of democratic vision of socialism in cities and regions (via Antonio Gramsci and Nicos Poulantzas), was in the air. I had a passionate interest in these processes that Ed helped me to materialise through rigorous research.

There were great years at GSAP in the late 1970s. We were able to have classes and seminars, apart from Ed, with John Friedmann, Peter Marcuse, Dolores Haiden, Allan Heskin, Peter Marris, David Stea, the late Robin Ligget, and we benefited from regular visits by Manuel Castells, David Harvey, Guillermo Geisse and many others. In this fruitful, non-elitist, intellectual environment, many radical students like myself, found a productive space to develop our own particular interests. In one of David’s visits, our group of PhD students organised a party in Soja’s garden where I proposed to Ed … that I roast a whole lamb on a self-made wooden spit, which was still in his garage in 1995. We had a lot of fun and David still remembers it.

A crucial figure behind Ed’s success at UCLA and internationally is his wife Maureen (see photo 1). She kept their house always open for intellectual events hosting us with open arms, good food and wine; with her English sense of humor, she was able to survive many of Ed’s oddities. She supported Ed in all of his activities, asking him to stop smoking and eating junk food, to take his pills regularly, to do some exercise. Unfortunately, Ed did not listen – whereas his support for others could not have been sustained without Maureen’s (and also Erika’s and Christopher’s during the last 10 years) continuous support to him.

Photo 1: Ed and Maureen in their garden, Santa Monica, 1995

Photo 1: Ed and Maureen in their garden, Santa Monica, 1995

 

I had Soja as principal advisor in both my Master’s degree and later in my joint Planning/Geography PhD at UCLA (if I remember well, I was his first PhD student). He had a creative imagination and he opened to us all sorts of intellectual paths searching for invisible connections.  We had hours of discussion and he was particularly helpful in guiding me towards the path of uneven geographical development, a path in which I continue to work until today. He was a challenging — sometimes very nasty — but also supportive advisor, and I am deeply honoured when people, still now, recognise me and my work as “a Soja student”. I remember in my PhD oral exam, Ed asked the most difficult questions, I lost my words and other committee members rescued me. I left for home convinced that I failed, until I had a call from him triumphal announcing that I passed with distinction and asking to join him for drinks. He also convinced me to send my Marxist PhD thesis on the Geographical Transfer of Value to the annual competition for PhD theses of the International Regional Science Association. I was reluctant but Ed insisted and he was very proud when, surprisingly, I won one of the first prizes, including a ticket to travel from Athens to Pittsburg to receive the honor and present a paper in the RSA conference.

Coming from an immigrant Polish family and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., Ed changed my impression of the USA and its people. He provided not only scientific knowledge on how North American cities and regions have developed over time, on racial segregation and class divisions of urban space, but more importantly about Americans’ everyday democratic and radical struggles, unknown to most Europeans. We discussed these issues in a joint visit in N.Y in 1979, in front of his house in the Bronx (see photo 2). Having a deep belief in social and spatial justice –something developed further in his latest book- he argued and demanded nuanced analysis and documentation of every aspect of social mobilisation in cities. He changed also my view of Los Angeles itself, a non-city in the eyes of a Southern European. We had long disagreements, and Ed defended his view that LA is not only different from known historical urban agglomerations but it shows a new, unique path that most other agglomerations imitate. These were pioneering ideas in the late 1970s, while today they stand as regular references to his work. 

 

Photo 2: Ed in front of his house, Bronx, 1979

Photo 2: Ed in front of his house, Bronx, 1979

 

Later, after my return to Greece he continued to support me in my first book in English, Uneven Development and Regionalism: State, Territory and Class in Southern Europe, we exchanged commentson papers, we met at conferences and we had relaxing moments in various Greek islands, in Athens and Thessaloniki (see photo 3). On more than one occasion, he encouraged me to apply for academic positions in the US, and I will always be grateful for his support, even though I was committed to staying in Greece.

 

Photo 3: Ed, Myrto, Irini and myself, Naxos, 1983

Photo 3: Ed, Myrto, Irini and myself, Naxos, 1983

 

We also had major disagreements. I was very critical of his post-modern turn starting with Third Space and not with Post-Modern Geographies, which is a very modern text indeed. We exchanged letters about his interpretations of Lefebvre and Foucault but above all on his chapter “The Stimulus of a little confusion: a contemporary comparison of Amsterdam and Los Angeles”. He had reservations about my leftist Marxist commitment although he recognized that I was not dogmatic. Later, he didn’t like my criticism of the so-called LA School, of New Regionalism and flexible specialization and he got irritated when Ray Hudson and myself presented our radical arguments in the Aegean Seminar at Syros, September 2012. In the same seminar, he was very critical of our Greek students for being overly structural and materialist, in other words not post-modern enough. Of course, in the evening he was the usual open, friendly, joking Ed with everyone (see photo 4).

 

Photo 4: From left to right: Andrew Sayer, Vicente Granados, Ed Soja, Dina Vaiou, Syros 2012

Photo 4: From left to right: Andrew Sayer, Vicente Granados, Ed Soja, Dina Vaiou, Syros 2012

 

Ed Soja was also a key figure in the Planning Department at UCLA as teacher and Department Head, mobilising and inspiring an innovative group of scholars, attracting always brilliant students. From the 1970s to the 1990s, GSAUP occupied a distinctive position among other departments in the US, moving away from a technocratic vision of planning (without abolishing technical and modelling training) towards a humanistic-radical practice. Young planners from GSAUP became social catalysts and urban activists, rather than ordinary administrators in city hall planning departments. Soja’s role was crucial in this tradition and he maintained his opposition to GSAUP’s transformation into a part of a School of Public Affairs. I joined him, together with many other planning graduates, writing protest letters.

I could go on, at the risk of sounding too positively biased. I would like to end instead by saying, without exaggeration, that besides our disagreements and the reservations I have for some of his late work, Ed Soja has been my mentor, great teacher and lifelong friend. And this is also true for dozens of younger scholars and students throughout the world.  Looking back on the 40+ years I knew him, the impact that he had on changing mainstream spatial conceptions into critical socio-spatial analysis was indeed enormous. Now he went to his own personal Third Space and left us with memories as a great man, not only physically.    


[1] Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography, HarokopioUniversity, Athens, hadjimichalis@hua.gr

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