- Remembering Larry Ford
Larry Ford's untimely death in September 2009 has silenced America's leading urban geographer. Larry loved cities. He visited and studied them everywhere—throughout North and South America as well as in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. No person has been in more cities throughout the world than Larry. He examined urban environments directly and up close, the way most of us see real cities, that is, on foot from the street. Urban views from cars, trains, planes, and even bikes soon become blurred and forgettable images of motion.
Larry approached the city as a walker. He observed forms, shapes, sizes, and colors of buildings and appreciated their three-dimensional qualities. He looked at the designs of buildings, saw how they fit together, identified what goes on inside, and located with his mental map where they were in the geography of a city. Larry shared what he had seen and experienced—in the classroom, in public presentations, and in print. He made the modern city, especially the American, intelligible to a worldwide audience.
I have known Larry since he and his wife Jan arrived in Eugene in the fall of 1967 to begin work on a Ph.D. in the Department of Geography at the University of Oregon. An impressive group of graduate students along with the Fords came to Oregon in the 1960s to study geography. These new Oregonians developed close friendships, supported each other, and created intellectual stimulation that complemented instruction geography faculty imparted in Condon Hall. A core gathering of young men included Gale Dixon, Bill Crowley, Mike Donley, Larry Ford, Dick Fusch, Art Greenberg, Don Holtgrieve, John Ressler, Bob Richardson, Lester Rowntree, and Jerry Towle. All but two became university geography professors. It was the start of an active graduate program in geography at Oregon. Former students recall how faculty provided freedom to explore new ideas and research agendas; to do field work on themes (e.g., urban cultural landscapes) seldom, if ever, examined in the past; and to explore their own intellectual growth without conforming to specific theoretical and/or methodological ideologies. [End Page 97]
During his first summer at Oregon, Larry and several graduate students accompanied Professor Edward T. Price on a field trip to Ireland, thanks to an NDEA (National Defense Education Act) grant, a source of funding in the 1960s for many students to do international field work for advanced degrees. At the end of his second year, Larry took charge of his dissertation and traveled to Argentina to study the presence and popularity of high-rise buildings in cities there. Skyscrapers fascinated Larry. He found these buildings to be both functional and symbolic elements of the urban landscape. Moreover, he wondered how and in what ways the development of this building style and their locations in American cities shaped the organization, character, and future of downtowns and provided visual focus to other cities around the world.
In 1970, degree in hand, Larry accepted a position at San Diego State University. He taught geography there for nearly forty years. Early on, the new professor looked as young as his students, and more than once Larry was mistaken for one. Meanwhile, they were teaching him about San Diego. This city in the southwestern corner of the country on the Mexican border was far different from the Midwestern city where Larry grew up. He was pleased to hail from Columbus, Ohio, and proud to know that James Thurber, author, cartoonist, and celebrated wit, was also a Columbus native. In his talks and his writings, Larry had a knack for invoking Thurber's lighthearted sense of humor. All during his career, Larry displayed delight, surprise, and amusement in exploring the urban world, traits that reflected Thurber's outlook, too.
Larry knew how to "read" cities, and he employed the "language" of geography in his life and work. I have walked in cities with him in this country and in Europe. Larry would point out features along streets that I missed and never would have seen. I recall, in the early 1980s, walking with Larry in the city center of Reutlingen, a medium-sized, old industrial city at...