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  • Two Books in Ethnic Geography: Goals, Creation, and Rewards
  • James P. Allen (bio)

I was asked to talk today about my research in ethnic geography—about my goals and approaches in ethnic research and some of my experiences along the way, especially those involving Los Angeles. I appreciate this opportunity, as it gives me a chance to talk about aspects of my research that I haven’t spoken of before. Perhaps what I say today will help some younger geographers decide what sort of research questions and methods and publication directions they’d like to pursue.

At this point I’d like to provide just a bit of my basic biography as a context for what I say later. With a love of travel and maps from childhood and later exploration of Mexico and most states of the U.S., including college summer jobs in Colorado and Oregon, I began Ph.D. work at Syracuse University in the middle 1960s. There I was inspired and mentored by the distinguished historical geographer Donald Meinig. Then in 1969 I became an assistant professor at California State University in Northridge, which is part of the city of Los Angeles. However, after ten years at Northridge, despite authoring several good publications and achieving tenure, I found myself with no exciting focus for new research.

All of that changed when I asked my colleague, Gene Turner, if he might want to collaborate on an ethnic atlas of the United States. [End Page 167]

Ultimately we completed quite a few academic articles and three books. Today I’d like to talk about our first two books—the nationwide atlas of ethnic groups in the U.S. called We the People (Allen and Turner 1988), and the ethnic geography of greater Los Angeles titled The Ethnic Quilt (Allen and Turner 1997). I focus on these two because they were our greatest research efforts. But before I get into these, I’d like to acknowledge my great fortune in finding in Gene Turner a research partner with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working for thirty years.

Collaboration with Gene Turner at CSU Northridge

Most of the work I’ve done in ethnic geography couldn’t have been done without the partnership of Gene Turner. Although we are both in the Geography Department, Gene’s interests and skills are different from but complement my own. Gene is a cartographer and an expert in computer applications in geography. My background was in historical, cultural, and population geography. It’s been clear to me that having Gene’s skills in map making and data retrieval and analysis made possible our joint work over the course of so many years. But more than that, Gene is one of these people who is patient and persistent in solving technical problems one way or another. He is also patient with me, never raising his voice when I change my mind about whether or not we need some particular data item or analysis or map. Gene has also read draft versions of my writing, correcting errors and making valuable suggestions. So, thank you, Gene, for all you’ve done for me and for our projects.

At Northridge, Gene and I found great freedom in our choice of projects. If we had been at one of the major Ph.D. geography departments, I think books aimed partly for the educated public might not have been encouraged. Also, pressure might have been applied on us to obtain major funding grants and to follow the theoretical and methodological ups and downs shaped by the leading geography scholars of the day. For me, these would have been great constraints. I always felt that Gene’s and my research was designed to answer questions that arose more from curiosity about the real world than from trends in academic geography. I’ve always believed that academic geography was too confining. Because I wanted to reach scholars in related fields and educated, curious people who were not academics, it’s probably not surprising that we put our energies into writing books rather than articles. Books, we believed, were the only type of publication that would allow us to reach those...