Stony Monday: feds to lease, not sell, public lands

The feds announced today that their strategy for the disposal of development lands will be to lease, not sell. It’s interesting to note that the early history of Bytown and perhaps its socio-political character even into modern times was defined by these kinds of decisions. I think it was Prof. Taylor who noted that while developers like Sparks (Upper Town) and Besserer (Sandy Hill) were able to acquire large tracts of land as freehold, the British military leased the lands in Lower Town to housing builders and merchants.

The effect of that, if I remember his argument, was that Lower Town and Sandy Hill have older buildings than those we see in Upper Town. Landowners in the latter erected better quality and longer-lasting housing on their freehold lands, while in Lowertown commercial landlords erected much cheaper housing since they didn’t own the land – and leases were relatively short. That less expensive housing would burn more frequently and wasn’t built to last. The French and Irish canal workers tended to be the ones who couldn’t afford more than that rental housing while Taylor was very poignant on the point that those workers would literally have to look up at the more substantial and expensive housing being built by the Scottish and English affluent class in Upper Town.

I argued in university that that disparity in built form and the quality of housing was an exacerbating factor in the Stony Monday riot, the combatants in which were divided by language and ethnicity. A final showdown was unconsummated, prevented by British troops who stood between the sides facing each other across the Canal on either side of the Sappers Bridge. The argument by made by many historians is that when neither side got the upper hand in our version of the Rebellion Losses violence, cooler heads prevailed and a political accommodation was reached between the English, French and Irish to prevent future violence. A walk down the hall of Mayors’ portraits is at least superficially demonstration of that.

Would the Stony Monday riot have taken on its particularly Bytown flavour the way it did if the physical geography and built form of the city not so profoundly reflected a divided city? Would freehold land development patterns across the young town, not just in Sandy Hill and Upper Town, have led to better housing conditions for the French and Irish labouring class, and perhaps to either a much less violent episode when Lord Elgin announced his visit or even a more enduring under-class that might never have had the same incentive to flex its power in the violence that did occur?

Assuming any lease by the feds to private developers would be of the 99-year variety, none of this history is necessarily relevant, but it’s on my mind. Have a great weekend.