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  • Celebrating Howard Nelson
  • Herb Eder, Pete Fielding, and Ron Horvath

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Howard Nelson (right) and Joe Spencer on the retirement of Joe Spencer, 1975.

(Photo courtesy of Ron Horvath.)

Howard J. Nelson was born, January 12, 1919, in Gowrie, Iowa, and died on May 19, 2009, in Carmichael, California. He was ninety and is survived by his wife Betty, son Jim, and granddaughter, Sara Duncan. He enjoyed retirement by walking shopping malls for exercise, reading three daily newspapers via the Internet, and writing amusing Christmas letters each year that all his friends looked forward to receiving.

Howard attended the University of Chicago with assistance from the GI Bill. He received his MA (1947) after writing a thesis on "The Location of [End Page 109] Manufacturing in Iowa" and his Ph.D. (1948) for a dissertation titled "The Livelihood Structure of Des Moines, Iowa," before migrating to "Lotus Land," as he affectionately tagged Los Angeles. From 1949 to 1986, Howard taught urban and economic geography at UCLA. He chaired the department from 1966 to 1971 and served as president of the California Geographical Society (1960–-61) and the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers (1972–73).

Although his early publications reflected the structural and functional approaches to urban geography, his latter publications reveal a heightened awareness of the role of cultural influences. His "Walled Cities of the United States" (Annals, 1961), as well as his article on Mexican cities (Economic Geography, 1963), are classics in the later tradition. Howard and Joe Spencer carpooled to UCLA from Tarzana for many years, and one can imagine that the topics of discussion included the department, their discipline, and perspectives that influenced Howard's professional development.

Howard's scholarly work focused upon Los Angeles. In many respects, Howard was a man of his time and place. He was part of that huge migrant stream of people from all over America, and he shared the outlook, hopes, and sensibility of many people who came to Los Angeles in that era. His research and publications represented how urban and economic geographers approached their subject matter in the period prior to the so-called quantitative-theoretical revolution in geography. He summarized a great deal of his thinking and work in The Los Angeles Metropolis (1983), a book that is a valuable account of the historical urban geography of Los Angeles. For Howard, the aim of scholarship was to capture a place and time in accessible, good writing, without inserting himself into the text. When Howard was active as a researcher on Los Angeles, there were relatively few scholars writing on the metropolis, especially in the three decades after World War II. This was to change from the 1980s on, when Los Angeles was viewed as the place where one could visit the future. The contrast between Howard's work on Los Angeles and the scholarly work that appeared beginning in the 1990s is interesting both in terms of what the comparison tells us about how urban geographers thought about Los Angeles and how Los Angeles itself changed. There is now a huge literature on Los Angeles viewed as the exemplar of the urban condition in the late twentieth century. His work spanned the view of Los Angeles as "Lotus Land," as the place where the American dream was being realized in a particular way in the endless suburbs, through to the period when the city was possibly looking like "Eden in Jeopardy." He [End Page 110] wondered whether the dream had become a nightmare, yet he expressed a qualified but optimistic view of the future of Los Angeles.

Howard was a regular occupant of the department's "coffee-room cultural hearth," where he and other faculty provided intellectual stimulation and friendship to several generations of students. These were happy days, when graduate students were optimistic, they could survive on meager TA incomes, and job prospects were expanding. Students who experienced this milieu will remember Howard not only as a teacher, but also like an older brother: He never seemed angry, threatening, or self-possessed, but always congenial, with a wonderful smile and sense of humor. [End Page 111]

Herb Eder
Pete Fielding...


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