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Property, Pluralism and the Gentrification Frontier

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 July 2014

Nick Blomley
Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University


The author seeks to make sense of the political and ethical cleavages associated with inner city gentrification in Vancouver, by an examination of the differing perspectives on real property deployed by the opposing constituencies. He identifies a marked division between dominant and community-based readings of property as an economic, political and legal category, associated with opposed visions of space, place and history. Conclusions are drawn relating to the significance of a geographically informed theorisation of decentred legalities, and the complex politics of power, resistance and domination.


L'auteur tente de comprendre les conflits politique et éthique que provoque l'embourgeoisement des quartiers pauvres de Vancouver en examinant les conceptions du droit de propriété foncière de leurs habitants. Selon l'auteur, il y a opposition flagrante entre la conception largement répandue de la propriété, vue comme un droit économique, politique et juridique, et celle des habitants défavorisés du quartier. Le conflit naît de conceptions opposées du droit de propriété étayées par une théorisation géographique des droits ainsi que des rapports de force entre les deux classes.

Research Article
Copyright © Canadian Law and Society Association 1997

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2. Community activist: Lower East Side, New York, quoted in Deutsche, R. & Ryan, C. G., “The Fine Art of Gentrification” (1984) 31 October 91Google Scholar.

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12. Smith cites several examples of pro-gentrification arguments in New York. Rosalyn Deutsche also notes the manner in which dominant aesthetic ideologies are implicated in gentrification. See Deustche, R., “Krzysztof Wodiczko's Homeless Projection and the Site of Urban ‘Revitalisation’” (1986) 38 October 63Google Scholar. See also the extended discussion reproduced in Barry, J. & Devevlany, J., Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime (Hoboken: Big River, 1987)Google Scholar.

13. Sarah Hughes describes the link between mapping, property and the frontier in 17th-century Virginia: “Immigrant colonists gazing at a wilderness envisaged its taming and imagined new markers bounding the edges of their own fields and meadows. The men who could measure the metes and bounds of those fields held the key to transforming a worthless, uncultivated territory into individual farms.” Quoted in Kain, R. J. P. & Baigent, E., The Cadastral Map in the Service of the State: A History of Property Mapping (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) at 265Google Scholar.

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16. I have been influenced by a number of writers interested in property and the city, including de la Cueva, A. A., “Low Income Settlements and the Law in Mexico City” (1987) 11:4International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 522CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Krueckeenberg, D. A., “The Difficult Character of Property: To Whom do Things Belong?” (1995) 61:3Journal of the American Planning Association 301CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brigham, J. & Gordon, D. R., “Law in Politics: Struggles Over Property and Public Space on New York City's Lower East Side” (1996) 21:2Law and Social Inquiry 265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Davis, J. E., Contested Ground: Collective Action and the Urban Neighbourhood (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Milner, N., “Ownership Rights and the Rites of Ownership” (1993) 18 Law and Social Inquiry 227CrossRefGoogle Scholar; J. Waldron, J., “Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom” (1991) 39 UCLA L. Rev. 295Google Scholar. More general discussions of property that I have found useful include Radin, M. J., Reinterpreting Property (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Rose, C., Property and Persuasion (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Singer, J. W.The Reliance Interest in Property” (1988) 40 Stanford L. Rev. 611CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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19. Sarti, R., “City Seeks to End Loss of Low-cost Housing” Vancouver Sun (4 April 1997) B4Google Scholar.

20. Alex Yuen, real estate agent, quoted in “Real Estate Boom”, supra note 18; Sarti, ibid.

21. There are few examples of the uses of the frontier metaphor in Vancouver, however, presumably reflecting the differing historical context of Canadian colonisation. Loo notes that the British Columbia frontier was not Turnerian, but imperial and metropolitan. Loo, T., Making Law, Order and Authority in British Columbia: 1821-1871 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994)Google Scholar. However, it is ironic to note that many of the businesses in the area—incuding the defunct Woodward's department store, or the logging outfitting stores—have played an historic role in the opening up of the province's “resource frontier.” Woodward's, for example, got its start as an outfitter for the Yukon Goldrush. Now, ironically, it is the Downtown Eastside that has become a capitalist frontier in its own right.

22. There is an extensive body of writing that characterises the Downtown Eastside in negative terms, relying upon a “Skid Row” terminology of welfare abuse, poverty, madness, aboriginality, sex and drugs. See, for example, Collins, J., “Save our Slum” British Columbia Report (7 August 1995) 12Google Scholar; Shaw, G. “Skid Road: The Flop Side and the Flip Side” Vancouver Sun (16 April 1983)Google Scholar; McMartin, P., “In a Beseiged Neighbourhood, DERA Becomes a Prize to Fight Over” Vancouver Sun (23 September 1996) B1Google Scholar; Deverell, W., “Back Alleys: Welfare Wednesday” (Winter 1993) The Vancouver Review 26Google Scholar; Ross, N. “Welcome to My Neighbourhood” Globe and Mail (9 January 1995) A18Google Scholar.

23. Collins, ibid. at 1. A frequent accusation is that such community groups oppose new developments not because of a higher ethical objection to displacement but due to a fear that gentrification will upset the local status quo: “[T]his elite's main goal is to maintain poverty and a perceived state of crisis so they continue to justify theor existence—and state funding—as front line troops in the war against poverty.” Collins, ibid. at 14. It is interesting to speculate on whether this is simply a cynical accusation, or whether it reflects a fundamental failure to make sense of opposition to “obvious improvements.” Perhaps the only rationale for possible opposition, given a market-oriented mindset, is to assume that community groups are rational, entrepreneurial actors.

24. Interview with Brad Holme, President, Pacific City Land Corp. (16 May 1996).

25. Interview with Jon Ellis, Gastown activist (14 May 1996).

26. The legal significance of this was made evident in a recent hearing before the rentalsman concerning the proposed eviction of tenants from the Dominion Hotel, whose owner seeks to convert a long-term residential hotel into a short-term tourist hotel. Identifying the tenants as “guests,” the landlord aimed to evict them at short notice These eviction notices were deemed illegal, with the rentalsman finding that the tenants were, in fact, “residents,” and this entitled to at least two months notice before eviction. Many of the tenants, it should be noted, had lived in the hotel long term—one for 30 years. As one commented: “This is my home, not some one-night stand.” Quoted in R. Sarti, “Gastown Hotel Tenants Wait for Ruling on Eviction” Vancouver Sun (31 May 1997) A17. See also F. Bula, “Bid to Evict Hotel Tenants Rules Illegal” Vancouver Sun (6 June 1997) B1.

27. Interview with Ellis, supra note 25 [emphasis added]. One source refers to area residents as “social service clients who frequent the area.” “We're the block busters!!” Carnegie Newsletter (15 November 1997) 3Google Scholar.

28. “Just because a bunch of Indians wandered up and down the Rocky Mountain trench for a few hundred years, doesn't mean they own it.” Attributed to Allan Williams, Social Credit Attorney-General, 1975. Cited in Sterritt, N. J., “Unflinching Resistance to an Implacable Invader” in Richardson, B., ed., Drumbeat: Anger and Renewal in Indian Country (Toronto: Summerhill Press, 1989) 167 at 292Google Scholar.

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34. Bula, F., “Yuppies in the ‘hood’” Vancouver Sun (24 June 1995) A1, A2, at A1Google Scholar [emphasis added].

35. Quoted in Collins supra note 22 at 14. Her comments reflect both a pragmatic realisation of the class privileges of gentrifiers, as well as an almost alchemical faith in the power of money. The irony in all this is that many who occupy any new first wave market housing in the area are not likely to be the rich, but those at the bottom of the end of the real estate food chain, given the relative affordability of new condos and lofts in the area compared to housing elsewhere.

36. Given its importance, a careful “archeology” of “highest and best use” urgently needs to be undertaken. For some suggestive examples of its use, see Park, R. E., “Succession, An Ecological Concept” In Park, R. E., ed., The Collected Papers of Robert Ezra Park, vol. 2,. (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1952) 223Google Scholar; Hurd, R. M., Principles of City Land Values (New York: The Record and Guide, 1924)Google Scholar.

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38. Bolen, D., “Urban Evolution Eventually Will Drop its Blanket Over Downtown's Decay” Vancouver Sun (4 December 1996) A7Google Scholar.

39. Jonathan Baker quoted in Collins, supra note 22 at 16.

40. Concord Pacific promotional material, Concord Pacific Place: The Ultimate Waterfront Community: Living! Vancouver's New Waterfront Lifestyle, at 3 [copies with author].

41. Hassan, S. & Ley, D., Neighbourhood Organization and the Welfare State (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994) at 190Google Scholar. For one resident, “[t]hey think that everybody down here is just a transient. But this is a community. It is a neighbourhood. There are actual people living down here.” Quoted in Steele, S., “Letter from East Vancouver: Worlds colliding” Macleans (21 April 1997) 18Google Scholar.

42. Hassan & Ley, ibid. at 185.

43. Interview with Barb Daniel, supra note 3.

44. Interview with Jim Green, Downtown Eastside activist (27 June 1996).

45. Interview with Barb Daniel, supra note 3.

46. Interview with Marg Green, Downtown Eastside activist (18 June 1996).

47. Protest (19 April 1997) [copy with author].

48. Interview with Marg Green, supra note 46.

49. Interview with John Shayler, Downtown Eastside activist (16 March 1996) [emphasis added].

50. Interview with Jim Green, supra note 44.

51. Hassan & Ley, supra note 41 at 202.

52. See Radin, supra note 16.

53. N. Blomley “Remapping Property: Power, Space and History in the Inner City” [paper in review, copy with author].

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55. Interview with Marg Green, supra note 46. For one academic treatment of the issues of meaning, identity and urban space in the context of redevelopment, see Brion, D. J., “The Meaning of the City: Urban Redevelopment and the Loss of Community (1992) 25 Indiana L. Rev. 685Google Scholar.

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57. Carnegie Newsletter (1 November 1995).

58. One interesting example of the struggles over physical and symbolic spaces related to the successful application of one developer to close off a section of street adjacent to his condominium development. For community opponents, not only did this entail the unjustified loss of public space to a private developer, but it also entailed a clash over the meanings of that space, where an area deemed active, community space is regarded as threatening by new residents.

59. “Can you find the Downtown Eastside on These Maps???” Carnegie Newsletter, supra note 57 at 2. An inability on the part of the dominant society to register this sense of informal collective ownership is frequent. Only formal ownership seems to count. As one journalist noted: “The downtown eastside is home to militant community activists who view the district as their own, despite the fact that few of them own property.” Collins, J., “Given the Bum's Rush by Bureaucrats” (1997) 8:44British Columbia Report 16Google Scholar.

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70. This raises the vexed question of the material geographies of property in an immediate way. In an attempt at “out-developing the developer,” community groups in the Downtown Eastside have played an active role in producing their own social housing. Although actively positioned as a bulwark against gentrification, as noted, one inevitable side-effect, perhaps, is to encourage it. These entanglements occur in other contexts. For example, community activists now find themselves struggling to preserve SRO housing, given its critical importance in the provision of shelter, whilst condemning the deprivations of “slum landlords.” Some of these contradictions surfaced in a recent community coup d'etat, where a group of dissidents sought to overthrow the DERA Board on the grounds that they had become “service providers,” and had lost their original political mandate in relation to the politics of property and poverty.

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