Real Estate and Global Urban History: Interview with Alexia Yates

To mark the publication of new contributions to our Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History series, we will feature interviews with authors and share short excerpts from their work. Here, series co-editor Joseph Ben Prestel interviews Alexia Yates, the author of our second Element, Real Estate and Global Urban History (2021). Alexia Yates is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Manchester and author of Selling Paris: Property and Commercial Culture in the Fin-de-siècle Capital (Harvard UP, 2015) as well as numerous articles. An excerpt of Real Estate and Global Urban History follows the interview.

Joseph Ben Prestel (JBP): My first question concerns the topic of your Element. What is the most important insight that global and urban historians can gain from looking at real estate?

Alexia Yates (AY): There are a host of empirical questions about the urban experience that are unanswerable without addressing real estate, either through its attributes as built space, as land, or as a political and economic relationship. (They’re not always the most urgent questions for every problem we might pursue, but they’re manifold.) But what’s really important for me is recognizing that the key relationships that constitute real estate – the relations between fixed space and circulating capital, people, and things; the relations between different time scales of slow land and fast money; the relations between enduring structures and fleeting lives – these are also the central relations of both global and urban history. Henri Lefebvre put the tension between fixity and flow at the heart of his theories of the production of space; historians like Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, as well as Frederick Cooper and Charles Maier, place the dynamics of settlement and unsettlement, of territorialization and deterritorialization, at the heart of their approaches to global processes. So properly understood, real estate helps take the historian from the everyday, the realm of experience, to much wider ranging scales of analysis. At the same time, it roots those wider scales in the specific conditions and contingency of more local, differentiated, and defined relationships.

JBP: Your first book was a study of property and commercial culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris. This Element analyzes cities around the world. What was it like to write a global urban history?

AY:  Really exciting. The Element was an opportunity to dig deeper into so much important research happening in urban history, to get excited about the field and go wild with interlibrary loan. Obviously, the scope of ‘global urban history’ seems overwhelming at first glance, and I initially approached the work a bit like a magpie. But I quickly felt my way into getting the most out of the global urban history approach: dispensing with any notion of comprehensiveness, and centering an urban element or dynamic that can bring different cities and different scales of jurisdiction and experience into communication. Focusing on real estate as a particular technology of city-making was the perfect vehicle to do this, in my view – though of course it comes with its own occlusions, maybe even distortions. But I’m upfront about that in the Element and hope that readers will think precisely in terms of what real estate can and can’t do as a lens on the history of the modern city.

JBP: What made you interested in writing an Element, with its novel format, and who do you hope will read it?

AY: Real estate is everywhere in urban history, but at the same time, it’s nowhere. It’s rarely explored or explained – turned into a historical problem. Our colleagues in sociology, geography, or political science have done exactly this work of problematizing in their studies of the contemporary city, but in those cases, history is often irrelevant or quite shallow. So, the Element offered the opportunity to make a case – to historians, to other scholars and students of the city – for the importance of thinking about real estate as a thing with a history. The length and accessibility of the Element seemed perfect for writing in a somewhat more polemical, but still rigorous and well-documented, fashion. And it let me cross time scales in a way my previous work didn’t. I really hope it persuades historians to look again at goods and things and institutions whose operations they normally assume or sidestep. As importantly, I hope that scholars in other urban studies disciplines can come to find historical perspectives on the issue useful and compelling.

JBP: What are your current and future research projects? What can we expect from you next?

AY: I’m currently working on a project on the social and cultural history of investment in modern France – the ‘movable’ assets that are the flip side of the ‘immovable’ assets I have already investigated. As that project winds up, I plan to return to studies of real estate by investigating the role of real property in processes of European decolonization. Somewhere in between I’d like to do some mapping and digital projects on financial capitals in the nineteenth century.

JBP: The Elements series aims at bringing global and urban history into a conversation. What are your favorite texts (classic, recent, or forthcoming) in global urban history? 

AY: Besides the works of the series editors (!), I’ll just note a couple of classic and recent texts that all work to make the urban scale speak to national and global processes:   

Harold Platt, Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Swati Chattopadhyay, “Blurring Boundaries: The Limits of ‘White Town’ in Colonial Calcutta,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians vol.59, no.2 (June 2001): 154-179

William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (Norton, 1991)

I read Kate Brown’s “Gridded Lives: Why Kazakhstan and Montana are Nearly the Same Place,” The American Historical Review, vol. 106, no. 1 (February 2001): 17–48) for the first time with the Global Urban History mentorship group this year, and for me it’s an instant classic.

Brodwyn Fischer, A Poverty of Rights: Citizenship and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro (Stanford University Press, 2010)

Paige Glotzer, How the Suburbs were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890-1960 (Columbia University Press, 2020)

Real Estate and Global Urban History is available in paperback and as an e-book; the e-book is free to download until July 6.

Excerpt from Real Estate and Global Urban History (Introduction p. 6-8)

Real estate is at once an old concept and a decidedly modern referent. A common law term dating from at least the seventeenth century (though the notion of ‘real property’ is still older), it designates a category of property separate from chattel or other personal estate, such as money, merchandise, or other goods. It takes its meaning – in legal, but also cultural and political terms – from the tangible and immovable nature of land and buildings. Such property is ‘real’ and protected in a way that movable, personal property is not. This holds true in both the common law and civil code systems. The French term for real estate, immobilier, captures the division in the Napoleonic Code between the civil realm – into which immovable, real property falls – and the commercial – the realm of movable goods and personalty. In contrast to the venerable standing of the concept in the major legal systems which came to cover much of the globe, in common parlance ‘real estate’ as we deploy it today was not much used before the mid nineteenth century. Legal discourse, political debate, economic disquisition, and those who worked in the management and traffic of ‘real estate’ referred to property, estates, buildings, and land, rather than the more general category (Fitz-Gibbon, 2018; Yates, 2015).

The shift to a more generalized usage of real estate in today’s commercialized sense is a multi-causal process, with important national variation, but which owes much to modern imperialism. Colonial frontiers and imperial cities were spaces in which property, from the perspective of colonizing authorities, was born as real estate (Bhandar, 2018) (Figure 1). This was a material boon for the colonizers who sought to accumulate capital through dispossession of existing owners, occupants, and users of land. It was also a discursive move that allowed a sort of hierarchy between real ‘real property’ that existed in the metropole and the inferior ‘real estate,’ shorn of political and cultural privileges, of the colonized territory. Indeed, real estate in colonized territories was a lever that helped construct a hierarchy of personal estates – such as the differentiated legal regimes for Muslim subjects in French Algeria – conducive to imperial governance (Surkis, 2019).

Making property in the empire was frequently about making what we might call commodity real property: property that could easily circulate, as liquid as other forms of capital. In colonial North America, for instance, as legal historian Claire Priest shows, the English parliament’s Debt Recovery Act of 1732 transformed the character of real property in its North American possessions, rendering it much closer to chattel than its metropolitan equivalent by degrading real property’s privileges and protections vis-à-vis creditors (Priest, 2006). In the nineteenth century, systems such as the Torrens system of land registration, which combined new techniques of surveying and registration to mobilize land and maximize its (financial) productivity, were developed and deployed across imperial territories, first in British colonies and then throughout the French empire and into diverse parts of North America and East Asia. Other empires studied and emulated European measures. The Ottoman empire’s Land Law of 1858 provides a well-known example of imperial reaction, as European models of individual ownership were adopted as a method of stimulating economic growth and centralizing governance (Islamoglu, 2004; Mundy, 2004). Japan acted similarly in Korea at the turn of the twentieth century, setting about renovating the land registration system on the European imperial model in order to open up Korean land to foreign investment (Lee, 2014). (In other instances, such as land reforms in Qing China, similar methods were pursued without the spur of European models (Macauley, 2001).) While enthusiasts of these rationalizing and maximizing methods hoped they could migrate back to the European core, outside of English governance in Ireland such moves were delayed for decades. Real estate, as it was born in this global context, was a mode and rationale of extraction and dispossession, crucially distinct from the political virtues of stewardship and autonomy represented by real property in the metropole (Grossi, 1981; Hoppit, 2011).

Our use of the term real estate, then, has this modern history embedded within it. Centring this history is of prime importance for the study of the contemporary city, perpetually shaped by dynamics of possession (for the wealthy, for settlers, for gentrifiers…) and dispossession (for the poor, for indigenous, for the displaced…), and is one of the reasons why real estate is a central concept and entity for any global urban history (Blatman-Thomas and Porter, 2019; Everett, 2019; Maggor, 2017). In contrast to the more general language often used by urban historians to refer to land and buildings in the urban setting – terms like ‘landscape,’ ‘urban fabric,’ or ‘built environment’ – real estate presents a specific set of relationships for historical inquiry. As a term with a deep legal history, it draws attention to the bundles of rights that constitute ownership, to the fact that property is a set of relationships (more than only a ‘thing’ possessed), among which the most important are the relationships of definition and enforcement instituted by the state (Banner, 2011). These relations constitute real estate as a social fact, elevating it from the lot for sale or apartment for rent and revealing its status as a terrain of social production and contestation. When understood this way, a focus on real estate does not risk reducing the study of the city to a study of urban economics, nor does it risk neglecting people in favour of property.

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