Why “Unquiet Titles”?

I’m trying a change in the title of this weblog, to “Unquiet Titles.” It’s based primarily on a notion, first taught to me in law school by the brilliant Prof. Jo Carrillo, that ownership of land is always a relative matter.

There’s nothing simple about “fee simple” and nothing tenuous about the rootedness that comes with a long-term rental tenancy or the customary use of a public space. Formally and informally, rights to take up space follow either from negotiated understandings with others or from outright unilateral displacement.

No space, really, is “abandoned”, “neglected”, or “derelict”. Any space looking that way has kinetic energy bound up in it: it is being kept inactive because of some definite intention or tension. For example, as Mark Ellinger has noted, San Francisco’s long-unoccupied Hugo Hotel on Sixth Street, best known for its “Defenestration” art installation, was sometimes called “abandoned” during the long years of bitter behind-the-scenes conflict over its future use. No one ever let go of that building voluntarily.

“Unquiet” has to do with the haunting imposed by prior uses of land. I don’t for a moment believe in ghosts nor the supernatural. I do, however, believe that architectural legacies, and the way people feel about them, “haunt” properties in entirely earthly ways.

At Tule Lake, for example, the town of Newell is haunted by the architectural legacy of its founding permanent structures, which were the barracks and utility buildings of the Tule Lake Segregation Center incarceration site. For example, some of the buildings where people live are too close together for comfort, because that’s how the inmates’ barracks were built during World War II. Worse, the waste pipes under houses have tended to back up because the wartime drainage system — still in use as of 2006, and I think probably still — was built for the communal washhouses and latrines of a prison camp, not for individual free households’ private plumbing systems. I know at least one person who believes that Tule Lake houses literal unquiet spirits. I don’t agree about that, but I do know that one legacy of the wartime camp has been unquiet drainpipes.

Inconsiderate construction, redlining, love or the lack of it — they all leave marks on a landscape. History never really goes away.

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