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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Chantal Gailloux, Social and Cultural Analysis

The Conflicting Politics of Commoning - Property Relations and Political Practices of Community Gardens in East Harlem, NYC, in the Context of the Affordable Housing Plan

Date & time
Tuesday, July 7, 2020
1 p.m. – 4 p.m.

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Daniela Ferrer



When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


This dissertation treats of the property relations and political practices of eight community gardens in East Harlem, New York City, that are threatened with eviction by “Housing New York,” a citywide affordable housing plan, leading to a contentious land use conflict.

Property relations in community gardens take place among a broad set of actors, like gardeners, passers-by and neighbours, but also with developers, city officials, and city workers who all interact regularly and throughout the eviction process. These property relations consequently reveal how such urban spaces are contested. In keeping with Verdery (2001), Moore (2001), and Riles (2004), property relations – intertwined with power relations – point to the political practices to represent and assert their claims to a property in formal institutions and public review processes but also during daily interactions or direct actions.

During the yearlong multi-sited ethnography I executed in 2016-2017, I examined the gardeners’ property relations to better understand the contention between the City’s formal legal ownership rights versus the gardeners’ embodied and moral sense of ownership of the same space, which are two competing and asymmetrical authorities pitted against each other. To do so, I enquired how gardeners negotiate normative conceptions of property aesthetics and liberal citizenship while also scrutinizing the city-led land use public review process. I argue and illustrate how property relations are a way of negotiating power, be they on private, collective or commons property. Negotiating power here means as much producing or maintaining power as it does mitigating it.

As such, this dissertation reiterates what other scholars (see Roy, 2017) have shown with regard to how race has been and still is at the heart of American property. Consequently, community gardens have acted as spaces at the margins in the sense suggested by both Das (2004) and hooks (1989). Acting simultaneously as sites of resistance and repression, commoning gardens are community-led margins engaging in partnerships with the State for self-creation and maintenance. Thus, community gardens as margins are an ideal vantage point from which to explore the inner workings of the State and the public-private production of the urban space.

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