Estranged Real Estate

For the final installment in our series on the Cambridge Elements in Global Urban History, Alexia Yates presents the following essay-in-images that reflects on her recently published Element, Real Estate and Global Urban History.

By Alexia Yates

Between 1936 and 1941, the WPA Writer’s Program penned a study of New York City’s Black community. In a section on economic history, Wilfred R. Bain wrote an 1150-word entry on ‘Negro Real Estate Brokers’ that chronicled the careers, personalities, and networks of pioneering Black property intermediaries in what was arguably the world capital of real estate. He catalogued how Black brokers navigated the racism of white property owners and finance, opening Harlem, building by building, through shrewdness, luck, subterfuge, and strategy, to Black tenants and owners. Black brokers paid more and got less, and erected their own networks of patronage and exploitation in their struggle “for a place in the scheme of existence.” (They were excluded, of course, from the real estate boards and commercial fraternity of professional white brokers developing at the same time.)

“Negro Real Estate Brokers,” Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Decades of scholarship have familiarized us with the predatory practices by which real estate wealth was extracted from Black communities in the United States. But I cite this short study because it shows the author turning an account of real estate business – we’re in the ‘economic history’ section of the study, after all – into a chronicle of place and community. For Harlem, Bain writes, “the story of its growth is the story of the Negro real estate brokers.”

“Purchase of Manhattan Island by Peter Minuit, 1626” (c. 1902), copied from the painting by Alfred Fredericks for the Title Guarantee & Trust Company. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Real estate doesn’t jump off the page as a riveting or vital topic. Of course, we know it can be salacious and sensational. It’s somewhere at the core of most seedy business empires and the barrage of realty-cum-reality – from Million Dollar Listings to Escapes to the Country to Extreme Home Makeovers to Location, Location, Location – colonizes our imaginations with property fever dreams. But when it appears in the title of a book, it hardly elicits excitement. (Even the section on ‘Negro Real Estate Brokers’ is less enticing than the entry on ‘Beauty Parlors’ – though the former is considerably longer.) We don’t imagine the world between the covers will transport us, but rather that we will have to navigate it warily…and wearily. We expect an economics text, or a business manual, or a mogul’s biography; at minimum, we’ll have to spend time in some distasteful climes, populated by data, lucre, bravado, and shills that we’d all prefer to avoid.

Real estate thoroughly deserves its bad rap – and being the subject of dreary or self-important tomes is the least of its sins. It swings between the plain and ordinary (shelter as just a fact of life) and the complex and esoteric (amortization and CDOs and credit default swaps). Both extremes push against its legibility as a historical artifact. The rich countries of the world are heirs to a western liberal tradition ferociously committed to naturalizing and deproblematizing private property. But never for a moment has this naturalness been unchallenged or totally accepted. The dispossessed are always its fiercest critics, but they’re not alone. Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously lodged the origins of civil society and its ills with “the first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him,” while nearly two hundred years later, Karl Polanyi wrote that “to isolate [land] and form a market for it was perhaps the weirdest of all the undertakings of our ancestors.”

Toronto Man (2019), sculpture by Stephan Balkenhol for property developers Camrost Felcorp, Toronto, Canada. Photo by John Lorinc, used with permission.

What I wanted to do with real estate in my Element is to make it strange. Strange in the way that something has to be for it to be a historical problem: estranged, othered, distant from our everyday perception, and so visible to history. The book draws on my own research on the history of Paris and that of a host of scholars of cities and land around the world to bring into focus moments, places, and agency where the effort to corral land and buildings into real estate markets – and to erect those markets as institutions of governance at the heart of urban politics and economies – are particularly visible. Because for all the boosterism that forms an inescapable part of real estate’s operations, its fundamental weirdness and contradictions have always drawn attention. And if the tensions and incommensurabilities of these contradictions have been most frequently visible at urban edges and on rapacious imperial frontiers, they are daily operative in the dynamics of possession and dispossession that real estate, by its nature, affects everywhere in the modern city.

Rather than summarize the book, I present the images below (and the links to sources throughout) as a series of artifacts that evoke transformations in the practices and understandings of real estate that occurred in cities around the world in the second half of the nineteenth century. This period saw the emergence of a social science of the city for which a specialized real estate sector – also born in the final decades of the century – provided both data and imagery for new ways of ‘seeing’ a city. It saw the spread of auction houses and the birth of real estate reporting; the increased weight and global reach of corporate real estate investors; and the first professional associations of real estate intermediaries, whose enterprises inaugurated a global traffic in urban land and commercialized fantasies of urban living that spread speculative suburban development on shared models around the world.

Recognizing real estate as a set of relationships with a history – a history that is imperial and global as much as it is national and local – gives researchers a framework for wedding the ‘real’ of land, buildings, and places, with all their specificity and materiality, to the political, legal, and economic imperatives that stretch across scales and jurisdictions. It helps, in other words, to write global urban histories, centering the realms of experience and the everyday in our accounts of globality.

A poster advertising lots for sale on the grounds of a casino in the environs of Paris, c.1900.
Friedrich Hugo D’Alesi, “Parc de Ruiel (Ancien Casino),” Archives Départementales Hauts-de-Seine.
A similar advertisement from the same period for land and racetrack development in the Bronx.
“Panoramic Views of the Bronx: Real Estate Auctions” (1913), Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Corporate cityscapes. Building at no.77-81 avenue Victor Hugo, Paris, owned by the insurance company ‘La Foncière’, 1897. Archives de Paris, VO11 3880. Photo by author.
Property insurance writes the city.
Sanborn Map Company, “Fire Insurance Map from Mexico City, Federal District, Distrito Federal” (1905), Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.
Land for sale at the metropolitan fringe, Toronto, 1919.
“Real Estate For Sale Signs,” City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244; William James family fonds.
Real Estate Consumerism: An agency window display on Madison Avenue, New York City, 1926.
Byron Company, “Manhattan: Madison Avenue – 41st Street (East),” Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Tenant Organizing: A public relocation orchestrated by Georges Cochon and the Parisian Tenants’ Union, c. 1926.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
International Investment and Real Estate: A bond in the French mortgage bank, Crédit Foncier Egyptien, 1903.
SALT Research.
Unsavory real estate. 
Steve Rhodes, “Meet the Donald” (2006), Flickr.


Alexia Yates is a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Manchester. She is a historian of economic life, focusing on urban political economy, business history, and the history of finance in modern Europe. Her new book is an Element on Real Estate and Global Urban History with Cambridge University Press, and her first book, Selling Paris: Property and Commercial Culture in the Fin-de-siècle Capital, appeared with Harvard University Press in 2015 and won the Wallace K. Ferguson Prize for the best book in non-Canadian history from the Canadian Historical Association in 2016.

Featured image (at top): Russell Lee, “Real Estate Office, Poteet, Texas” (1939), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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