Performing Property at Little Mountain: A Content Analysis of Protest Artwork

Perhaps the most uplifting protest events at Little Mountain were the art-ins. In addition to beautifying the housing project for the remaining tenants and serving a therapeutic role for many participants, the paintings produced at the art-ins advance a communal property claim to the buildings and grounds of the Little Mountain Housing Project.

The Little Mountain Housing Project was a 224-unit public housing project located about five kilometres south of Downtown Vancouver. Before its tenants were displaced and the site was privatized and redeveloped by the BC Liberal government from 2007 to 2010, it was BC’s oldest public housing project, having been built in 1954 (Wade, 1994). Over the years, countless families and seniors made their homes there, including my own family when I was a very young child in the early 1980s. The housing project consisted of two types of buildings: low-rise walk-up apartment buildings and rowhouses, which were reserved for larger families. A notable feature of the site was its large open spaces, which can be seen in the photos in Figure 1. Only 20% of the 6-hectare (15 acres) site was occupied by buildings and pavement, with the remaining 80% consisting of large grassy fields and trees (Olson, 1982). The Little Mountain Housing Project was a remarkably successful example of public housing as, for the most part, it avoided the problems of crime, drugs, and social isolation that have troubled some other housing projects (Thomson, 2010). Rather, when I spoke to tenants they emphasized how they looked after each other in innumerable ways, including babysitting for each other and giving food to one another. In the words of one tenant, Little Mountain is “a beautiful woven community web of everybody being family in the greatest sense of the word” (Thomson, 2007).

Figure 1                                   The Little Mountain Housing Project

Tragedy struck the Little Mountain ‘family’ in 2007 when the provincial government started displacing tenants out of the housing project. Tenants were ‘relocated’, as the government prefered to call it, so that the housing project could be redeveloped into a ‘mixed income’ community (BC Housing, n.d.). The government’s plan for Little Mountain was to sell the land to a private developer who would be responsible for replacing the 224 units of social housing at Little Mountain and adding to these as many as 1800 units of market condominiums (Ibid, Bula, 2007). From the beginning, tenants from Little Mountain as well as members of the surrounding community of private homes, reacted against the redevelopment. Tenants raised a number of concerns about the government’s plan, including concerns about having to move away from supportive friends and family members, children having to change schools, and leaving familiar surroundings (Thomson, 2010). Despite these concerns, the government aggressively pressed forward with relocation. Many tenants told me about feeling pressured by government officials to move, being told that if they wait their housing options will diminish.

When this essay was being written back in 2009, the housing project was mostly empty, with only 14 units still occupied. Most of the rest of the units had their doors and windows boarded up (although curiously, the government did not board up the residences that face Main Street, the part of the project that is most visible to the passing public). Even though it is mostly empty, at this point, it is unclear if and when Little Mountain will ever be redeveloped. The government’s redevelopment partner, Holborn Properties, was hit hard by the recession, as the company was forced to cancel it flagship Ritz-Carlton project in Downtown Vancouver (Constantineau, 2009). Despite having been announced as the government’s redevelopment partner back in May 2008, almost one year ago from the time of writing this essay, there was still no evidence at the housing project that Holborn had actually taken possession of the property. Many redevelopment opponents remained hopeful (at time of writing this essay; housing project is now gone) that title is still held by the government and that should a change in government occur as a result of the 2009 BC election, the housing project might still be saved. In the mean time, Little Mountain was in a state of limbo, as the recession continued to play itself out and as we waited for the outcome of the provincial election. Meanwhile, over 200 good homes sat vacant and boarded up, while Vancouver was in the midst of an unprecedented housing crisis in the run-up to the 2010 Winter Games.

Tenants and their supporters resisted redevelopment and relocation in a number of ways. Rallies and press conferences were held, a petition was circulated and a website was created (cf. CALM 2009). Every Saturday at 1:00pm for several months in 2008 a dedicated group of tenants and their supporters stood at the corner of Main Street and 33rd Avenue with banners and blue scarves to protest the redevelopment. In November 2008 a group of tenants and their supporters (including myself) even traveled to the Legislature in Victoria to raise the Little Mountain issue with the government directly.

Throughout this saga, perhaps the most uplifting protest events at Little Mountain were the art-ins. In addition to beautifying the housing project for the remaining tenants and serving a therapeutic role for many participants, the paintings produced at the art-ins advance a communal property claim to the buildings and grounds of the Little Mountain Housing Project. This property claim was performed both materially/physically and discursively.

The notion that property can be discursively and materially performed comes from Blomley’s (2004, 2008) work in the Downtown Eastside. The protests against the Woodward’s redevelopment which he discusses are particularly relevant to the Little Mountain case. Before presenting the results of my content analysis of protest artwork, the following section offers a brief overview of some of the literature on informal public art and critical property theory.

Informal Public Art and ‘Performing’ Property

The type of artwork this essay deals with bears some similarities to graffiti, but it is not graffiti in the way that that term is usually understood. As graffiti is an illegal activity, graffiti artists usually try to do their work inconspicuously, often at night (Schacter, 2008). This is quite different from the Little Mountain art-ins, which, despite involving illegal acts, were held quite openly in the daytime and were even attended by local politicians. Despite the differences with graffiti, the artwork at Little Mountain may be considered an example of informal public art, a category which includes graffiti (Ibid). Thus, the academic literature on graffiti is worthy of consideration.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, some researchers have highlighted the therapeutic value of graffiti, in the context of natural disasters (cf. Alderman and Ward, 2008) or national mourning (cf. Hanauer, 2004), for example. Other researchers have examined graffiti on the walls of public bathrooms, often emphasizing themes of gender (cf. Arluke et al., 1987; Otta, 1993). Many other researchers have looked at the use of graffiti in certain nationalist movements, such as the movements of the Basques (cf. Chaffee, 1988; Raento, 1997), the Irish Republicans (cf. Jarman, 1997), and the Palestinians (cf. Peteet, 1996). Most prominent in the literature on graffiti however, are studies that look at graffiti as an expression of urban youth subcultures (cf. Ley, 1974; Ley and Cybriwsky, 1974; Cresswell, 1992; Lindsey and Kearns, 1994; Ferrell, 1995; Alonso, 1998; Spocter, 2004; Schacter, 2008).

Territoriality is a common theme running throughout much of the graffiti literature. Simply put, graffiti is a means of staking out turf. The literature on graffiti shows that graffiti can be used to claim territory at multiple scales, from the scale of an aspired nation ethno-state in the case of nationalist graffiti to the micro-scale of the public bathroom as gendered territory. At the scale of the city, there are often several territorial impulses at play. At the most basic level, the practice of tagging, that is, the inscribing of one’s name or initials in a highly stylistic fashion on public surfaces, is a way that individual graffiti artists lay claim to territory (Ley and Cybriwsky, 1974). At the group level, tags and graffiti may be used by gangs to communicate a claim to urban territory (Ibid). In addition, graffiti can be a way that those marginalized on the basis of race lay claim to city space (Ley, 1974). More generally, as urban public space has increasingly become privatized, graffiti can be a means by which space is reclaimed for the public. Schacter (2008) makes this point in his ethnographic study of graffiti artists in London:

…they [graffiti artists] both deliberately aimed to confront capital’s ability to commoditise urban space, they attempted to modify control of this space, whilst crucially stressing the primacy of rights for its inhabitants. The very existence of ‘blank space’, signified for many of the artists I was working with (by its very nature), ownership, private space and exclusion; their appropriation thus creates a new form of ‘public’ space, and challenges the very notion of private ownership…(p. 53, emphasis in the original)

The idea that informal public art can challenge private ownership is affirmed in Blomley’s (2004, 2008) work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which deals with resistance to redevelopment plans for the Woodward’s building and Crab Park in the 1990s and early 2000s. In the Woodward’s case, activists painted art on the outside of the building to resist redevelopment plans in a highly similar fashion to the Little Mountain art-ins. Blomley (2004, 2008) argues that the painting of artwork on the outside of the Woodward’s building was a means by which area activists made a property claim to the building and the neighbourhood generally.

Blomley (2004, 2005, 2008) sees property as something that is performed, both materially and discursively. Property is performed materially when owners clean, maintain, and modify their properties (Ibid). Fence-building, gardening, and decorating are all ways that property is performed materially (Ibid, see especially Blomley, 2005). The very basis of private property rights in the liberal tradition comes from this performative aspect of property (Blomley, 2004). In the 17th century, Locke justified private property rights based on the productive use of land (Ibid). According to Locke’s theory of property, free men should be entitled to the fruits of their labour and therefore the productive use of property entitles one to certain property rights (Ibid). This theory continues to inform legal practice today in, for example, the common law doctrine of adverse possession (Rose, 1994 cited in Blomley, 2004). Under this doctrine, squatters may acquire title to land simply by occupying and using land, that is, by ‘performing’ property (Ibid).

By the same token, titleholders may lose legal title for not adequately performing property (Ibid). One of the most stunning recent examples of this doctrine in action occurred in 2007 when Harry Hallowes, who had been squatting unchallenged on a piece of pricey London real estate for more than 20 years, was granted legal title to the land from the courts (Malkin, 2007). In this case, the original titleholders lost legal title because they did not challenge Hallowes’ occupation for 20 years (Ibid). Thus, one party failed to perform property and lost title while the other party, the squatter, was granted title based on his property performance. The squatter’s property performance was his sustained occupation of the land and his improvement of the land by building a shack on it (Ibid). These are all examples of materially performing property.

In addition to material and physical performances of property, property is discursively performed (Blomley, 2004). Locke’s theory of property, while grounded in the material, is part of a discourse of property (Ibid). The re-telling of certain stories about property, such as Locke’s theory, is a key way property claims are performed and legitimized (Ibid). In the case of Woodward’s, the paintings on the building were part of both a material and a discursive performance of property. Activists discursively performed property with graffiti that read, “100% ours” (quoted in Blomley, 2004, p. 41) and “community property” (Ibid), for example.

Blomley’s (2004) research in the Downtown Eastside reveals two premises on which the poor base their property claims to the Woodward’s building and the neighbourhood more generally. One premise is that the poor have patronized, occupied, and used the building and the neighbourhood for a long time (Ibid). In so doing, they have invested their time and their identities in the neighbourhood (Ibid). They have also inscribed the neighbourhood with meaning (Ibid). This gives many poor residents a sense of having an ownership stake in the neighbourhood (Ibid). The second premise is that much of the landscape and the services in the area were produced by local activists (Ibid). In the early 1980s, activists lobbied governments for the creation of a park on the derelict industrial site that was to become Crab Park (Ibid). In addition, much of the social housing and services in the area came out of community activism (Ibid). Local poor residents have invested their time and energy in producing the neighbourhood as it is now (Ibid). This also gives rise to a sense of ownership over the neighbourhood (Ibid). This sense of ownership in the Downtown Eastside is not an exclusionary or commodified understanding of ownership (Ibid). Rather, there is a sense of collective ownership among the poor in the Downtown Eastside (Ibid).

Hegemonic liberal legal frameworks have a difficult time accepting collective property claims (Ibid). Such claims violate the atomistic individualism that lies at the heart of liberalism (Ibid). In responding to this view of property, critical property theorists have highlighted how property should be understood as a social institution that bundles together rights (Ibid; Singer, 2000). These rights govern social relations and include the right to use a particular piece of property, the right to exclude non-owners, and the right to sell or transfer property (Ibid). Singer (2000) uses the term “classical conception of property” and Blomley (2008) uses the term “ownership model” to describe the dominant (liberal) way these property rights are understood. The ownership model assumes consolidated [property] rights and a single, identifiable owner of those rights who is identifiable by formal title rather than by informal relations or moral claims. It also assumes rigid, permanent rights of absolute control conceptualized in terms of boundaries that protect the owner from non-owners by granting the owner the absolute power to exclude non-owners, and the full power to transfer those rights completely or partially on such terms as the owner may choose. (Singer, 2000, p. 4-5)

Singer (2000) provides several examples that demonstrate that this widespread way of understanding property and property rights is empirically incorrect. Legal practices pertaining to corporations, divorce, mortgages, and landlord-tenant relations all recognize the property claims of multiple parties including those who do not hold formal title (Ibid) (Blomley, 2008). In terms of tenants specifically, there has been legal recognition of the property rights of tenants above and beyond the rights owners have contracted out to them. In the case of rent control (cf. Radin, 1993) and security of tenure legislation (cf. Stark, 2001), these additional rights stem from tenants’ use of property.

It is because of the hegemony of the empirically inaccurate ownership model, that property claims that do not correspond to the ownership model are overlooked (Blomley, 2004, 2008). At first glance, it may seem absurd that the poor of the Downtown Eastside should see the property of the neighbourhood as belonging to them (Ibid). But this only seems strange because of the dominance of the ownership model, with its insistence that there be a single, identifiable titleholder (Ibid). Although this model is empirically incorrect, property claims that do not conform to it, “do not look like property to us, and we have tended to ignore them” (Rose, 1998 quoted in Blomley, 2008). Nonetheless, they may be valid property claims with some legal underpinning. This is a key point for those wishing to advance progressive social policy for the urban poor because the tendency is often to see property rights only in a negative light, as something that represses the poor (Blomley, 2008).

Content Analysis of Protest Artwork at Little Mountain

Two art-ins were held at the Little Mountain Housing Project to protest redevelopment, one on December 7, 2008 and another on January 11, 2009. Artwork was painted on the wooden boards put up by BC Housing over the windows and doors of empty buildings, directly on the façade of some buildings and, for those who did not want to engage in criminal vandalism, on sheets of corrugated plastic that were later attached to the buildings by other people (who, presumably, do not mind breaking the law). Participants included current and former tenants, people from the surrounding community, and a few local politicians, including NDP MLA Jenny Kwan.

For this essay, I analyzed the content of 62 paintings from the art-ins. For consistency I only analyzed content on buildings. I did not analyze other material put up before the art-ins, such as banners strung between trees and stick figures stuck in the ground, although these tend to reinforce the themes of the artwork from the art-ins. The unit of analysis is individual paintings. The front entrances to the apartment buildings at Little Mountain consist of a door with windows on either side, thus each entrance has three wooden boards (one for the door and two for the windows). What I considered an individual painting in many cases included artwork on three different pieces of wood or sometimes two if in my judgment the several pieces appear to have a certain unity and continuity.

I also included three paintings that I worked on, including one that I did alone and two that I collaborated with other people on. While it may seem strange that I am analyzing empirical evidence that I myself helped to produce, I think an analysis that excluded my contribution to the art-ins would be missing a key part of the story. I have stood by the tenants of Little Mountain since the nightmare of redevelopment began in 2007, not only as a researcher, but even more so as a member of the extended Little Mountain family. I used to live there as a young child and I have always remained connected to the place through friends who I would go visit there from time to time. My mum grew up in the neighbourhood and spent much of her teen years socializing with kids in the project. Through my research at Little Mountain my connections to the place have deepened and I have rediscovered old friendships and made new friends in the process. I simply cannot bracket myself out of the story in an attempt to be objective; I am a part of the Little Mountain story. Feminist scholars have denounced the notion that the social researcher should be emotionally and socially detached from their research subjects (cf. Harding, 1987; Haraway, 1988). When it comes to Little Mountain, it is simply impossible for me to do a detached analysis because it is a place and a community that both I am a part of and that is a part of me.

I employed a grounded theory approach to analyzing the paintings (cf. Hesse-Biber and Leavy, 2006). That is, I did not approach the analysis with a predefined set of codes. Codes, rather, were generated from the themes that I saw in the paintings themselves. Individual paintings were often coded with several themes or in some cases just one theme. The list of codes and the number of pieces of art in which they appeared is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2            Results of Content Analysis of Little Mountain Protest Artwork

Code Number of pieces of artwork (62 total)
Repopulating 25
Home 17
Housing policy 14
Use 13
Exclusion 11
Tenants (former & current) 11
Explicitly political 10
Cryptic/Dark 10
Family/Domesticity 9
Property claim 8
Class/Equality/Inequality 7
Love 7
Sadness 6
Pets 5
History 5
Community 5
Livability 4
Christmas 3
Children 3
Weather 3
Residents as productive of place 2
Gateway project 2
BC Housing 1
Garden 1
Partying/Drinking 1
Green space 1
Olympics 1

The two most dominant themes in the paintings are people and homes. It is hardly surprising that themes of the home should be well represented given the nature of the issue at hand. I do find it striking, however, the frequency with which people are portrayed in the paintings. Many paintings, especially those done on the boards that covered windows, show people in their homes in front of the window, often framed with curtains (see Figure 3). It is as through the artists are trying to repopulate the housing project. In addition to the artwork from the art-ins, at several protest events at Little Mountain over the past two years, about a hundred images of stick people attached to bamboo sticks were stuck in the ground (see Figure 4). Given the frequency with which themes of exclusion are evident in the paintings (see Figure 5), it seems that the emptiness of the housing project is particularly offensive to the protesters. Symbolically repopulating the housing project with paintings of people in windows is a way of countering that.

Figure 3                                Repopulating Little Mountain

Figure 4                                       Repopulating Little Mountain

Fig3

Figure 5                                          Exclusion

Not all of the people in the images are anonymous figures. Many paintings depict real people who once lived at Little Mountain or who continue to live there. I do not know who painted the painting in Figure 6, but the woman in the painting is immediately recognizable to me. The woman is Mrs. Steenhuisen, who has lived at Little Mountain since 1957, longer than anyone else. Mrs. Steenhuisen is widely regarded as the ‘mother’ of the housing project. In addition to raising seven children there, she has been a source of support and stability for many other families over the years. Little Mountain tenants know that if you need help, either in the form of emotional support or advice in dealing with BC Housing or you just need to borrow a cup of sugar, the Steenhuisens’ house is the place to go. In addition, she helped create the Little Mountain Tenants Association in 1958 and served as its President forty years later in 1998. In the 1960s, she helped establish a collective childcare centre known as a ‘tot lot’ and a city-wide program in which children from low income families could access swimming pools and skating rinks at subsidized rates, a program which continues to this day as Vancouver’s Leisure Access Card Program. Although she is now aging and in ill health, she is one of the last 14 hold-out tenants who have refused to be displaced by the government.

Figure 6                                         Mrs. Steenhuisen

Fig5

In addition to paintings that depict images of people, several boarded up suites were painted with the names of their former residents. Figure 7 shows, among others, the former home of the late Margaret Mitchell, a project character who is especially noteworthy. Mitchell created the now-defunct Vancouver and District Public Housing Tenants Association, which was based at Little Mountain and served as the umbrella organization for public housing tenants associations throughout the Lower Mainland. Mitchell served as the organization’s President for many years and was well known in Vancouver as an outspoken advocate for the poor. Margaret Mitchell passed away in 1994 and since then BC Housing has created in her memory the Margaret Mitchell Outstanding Achievement Award for public housing residents pursuing post-secondary education (BC Housing, 2007). Margaret Mitchell and Mrs. Steenhuisen as well as many other tenants over the years have fought hard for services for low income people; they have shaped the community at Little Mountain and to some extent Vancouver more generally. The painting in Figure 8 makes this point.

Figure 7                                  Former Tenants’ Homes Identified

Figure 8                             Tenants Produced the Place

Fig7

Many paintings point to residents’ everyday experiences that have come to inscribe meaning into the place. In many ways, I think this is how one can understand the images of people in the windows I already discussed. But in addition to those, one of the paintings in Figure 9 makes reference to a resident’s garden. Indeed, with its large open spaces, tenant’s gardens have been an important part of the landscape at Little Mountain. Another painting, also shown in Figure 9 (which I helped to paint) shows children playing in one of the open fields at the project (the girl in the red dress is a kid who my mum used to babysit). Generations of children have grown up playing in these fields such that the meaning of these fields for many people is children’s play space.

Figure 9                                Meanings Attached to Place

The bottom painting in Figure 9 is one of my favourites. It depicts young people partying and drinking beer. This one was painted by  an informal resident of the project a few years ago. I like this painting because, while Little Mountain has not suffered from the alcohol and substance abuse issues that have been so problematic in other housing projects, drinking with friends has constituted an important part of how many people have experienced the Little Mountain Housing Project. This painting avoids sanitizing that reality. Thus, for different people Little Mountain is a place of gardens, children playing, and drinking beer.

Property claims are implicit in many of the paintings I have discussed up to this point. In addition, many paintings explicitly make property claims to the Little Mountain Housing Project. Many paintings use possessive pronouns to lay claim to the homes and grounds of the project. The paintings in Figure 10 talk about “our home” and “my home”, for example. The banner under the Canadian flag that reads “This land is your land” is making an explicitly communal property claim and simultaneously challenging the government’s right to transfer title to a private developer. Although not an art-in painting, the banner strung up between trees that reads “Keep public lands in public hands” also challenges privatization of the property (see Figure 11). Thus, property was performed both materially and discursively at the Little Mountain art-ins.

Figure 10                                         Property Claims

Figure 11                        Property Claim: Against Privatization

Fig11

Discussion and Conclusion

Similar to what much of the literature on graffiti has shown, the painting of artwork at Little Mountain was about claiming territory. But even more precisely, property was performed at the Little Mountain art-ins. The very act of painting was a way of physically and materially performing a communal property claim to the Little Mountain Housing Project. As discussed above, Blomley (2004, 2008) makes the point that painting is a performance of property because painting is a way of modifying and improving upon property. These are things that owners do to their properties. But at Little Mountain, the material property performance goes even beyond the simple act of painting. The fact that the event was planned weeks in advance and that people were invited, over Facebook and other media, to attend the art-in at Little Mountain also represents a material property performance. Property theorists have pointed out how the right to exclude is an important stick in the bundle of property rights (Singer, 2000). The inverse of this, the right to include and to welcome people in, is also a property right. Thus, the way I and others invited people to the Little Mountain grounds to participate in the art-ins constitutes a material/physical property performance.

The art-ins were also property performances in another important way. Due to the lack of transparency on the redevelopment process, legal title ownership of Little Mountain is currently unclear for everyone except for those in government and perhaps Holborn employees. At the time of writing, we do not know whether Holborn has purchased the site. However, it would seem that if they had purchased the site, they would not permit the art-ins to take place on their property. When artwork was painted on the Woodward’s building, the titleholder filed a complaint with the police (Beatty, 2000). This did not happen in the Little Mountain case. In addition, most of the artwork was still there at the time I wrote this, more than four months after the first art-in took place. In other words, Holborn had not yet performed property at Little Mountain. It is for this reason that I remained hopeful that Little Mountain still had not been sold. Thus, the art-ins were a way of demonstrating and performing in a highly visible fashion that Little Mountain did not belong to Holborn. Rather, the art-ins confirmed that, at least at that point, Little Mountain still belonged to the public.

In addition to these material performances, the content of many of the paintings constitute discursive performances of community ownership of Little Mountain. The peopling I described in the previous section, in which the intent of much of the artwork seems to be to symbolically repopulate the housing project is a discursive property performance. The artists seem to be taking offense to the emptiness of the housing project; people should be living there. People belong in the housing project because the housing project belongs to the people. The artwork, by symbolically putting people back in the housing project, is challenging the government’s right to take people out of the housing project. The artwork is saying that the government does not have the right to exclude because the government does not really own the housing project, the people do. As one sign said, “this land is your land”; ‘your’ referring to the people. In addition to this there were many other explicit property claims that I pointed out above, such as “our home”.

Similar to the Woodward’s case, the ownership claim that the community is performing at Little Mountain is based on two premises. First, as several paintings show, people have used and occupied Little Mountain for decades. One painting in particular notes how one resident, Mrs. Steenhuisen, has lived at Little Mountain for 51 years. For more than 50 years, tenants and others have been using the Little Mountain Housing Project and in so doing they have inscribed it with meaning. The paintings show that Little Mountain has come to signify for different people, family, children’s play space, gardening, and drinking parties.

The meanings that people attach to Little Mountain are productive of the place. This brings me to the second basis for ownership claims: tenants and others have produced Little Mountain in a similar way that Blomley (2004, 2008) points out the poor have produced the Downtown Eastside. In addition to producing meanings, in many ways tenants have produced the landscape, in the form of gardens and children playing in the open space, an almost constant presence before most of them had been displaced. This, too, came across in the paintings. Also similar to the Downtown Eastside, Little Mountain tenants such as Mrs. Steenhuisen and Margaret Mitchell and others have fought for the services that many in the project have come to rely on. One painting in particular makes this point. In all these ways, the residents and local people produced the Little Mountain Housing Project. By depicting this productive quality of the community, many paintings discursively performed a communal claim to the property.

In addition to painting on the buildings in protest, over the years, Little Mountain tenants have performed property in a number of other ways. I have heard stories about tenants planting gardens and trees, doing maintenance on their homes, repairing playground equipment, and keeping a watchful eye on strangers walking through the housing project. These are all additional ways that property can be performed. When I asked one tenant why tenants do these things, she casually responded, “Because it’s our land, it’s our property, it’s our people” (Thomson, 2007). This is a bold claim so I was initially struck by the casualness with which it was made. It can seem strange that public housing tenants might think of themselves as having an ownership stake in their housing project. But Blomley (2004, 2008) stresses that such claims are not at all strange, it is only because of the hegemony of the empirically incorrect ownership model that this may sound bizarre.

According to David Harvey (2003), neoliberal capitalism involves “a new wave of ‘enclosing the commons’” (p. 148). It appears that this is what is occurring at the Little Mountain Housing Project. But this enclosure is not happening without a fight from the tenants and their supporters. In fact, the fact that we were able to get away with painting on all these buildings signifies to me that enclosure at Little Mountain is not complete. The developer has likely not finalized purchase of the land due to the recession and credit crisis. This has created an opening in the attempt to close people out, an opening that Little Mountain tenants and their supporters have exploited by having art-ins. The painting of artwork was both a material and discursive performance of ownership on the part of the community. This performance communicates as much to passersby as it reaffirms for the participants themselves that tenants and the extended Little Mountain family have an ownership claim over Little Mountain. Whether this claim will be respected by government and achieve a situation that is acceptable to most of the community as was the outcome with the Woodward’s and Crab Park cases is still an open question. In the meantime, when I go to or pass by the Little Mountain Housing Project the artwork makes me feel a little bit better about the situation. While I would prefer to see the place as I remember it, full of people and kids playing and whizzing by on their bikes, the artwork reminds me that we are not letting this go without a fight. I take comfort in knowing that I stand by my community.

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