Spring 2024 Mellon Forum: Transforming Land / Making Property

Princeton-Mellon Research Forum on the Urban Environment

Spring 2024: Transforming Land // Making Property

The Mellon Forum is the core event series of interdisciplinary dialogs organized by the Fellows of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities. 

The Spring 2024 Mellon Forum interrogates the political economy of land to understand how the built environment comes into being. We invite scholars to consider how land in its multi-dimensional forms— e.g. property, territory, infrastructure, etc.— is made and remade, and what these contestations might reveal.

The Spring 2024 Mellon Forum is sponsored by the Mellon Foundation and the Princeton University Humanities Council, Center for Collaborative History, HMEI, PIIRS, PLAS, SPIA, the Departments of Art & Archaeology. English, and Politics, and the School of Architecture. 

All events are free and open to the public. The Forum is held at the School of Architecture from 12 - 1:15pm. Attend in person -- lunch available while supplies last -- or register for the zoom webinars or watch on our livestream  https://mediacentrallive.princeton.edu/. Recordings of the sessions are posted to Media Central approximately one week after the live event.


February 12 @ 12pm – Meghan Morris, Temple University  

Soil Forensics: Property and the Buried Truth in Medellín

As Colombia attempted to achieve peace, the city of Medellín aimed to move beyond its violent past, breaking ground on ambitious green development projects to bring parks and infrastructure to the city’s most peripheral neighborhoods. But these projects threatened to evict local residents, as city planners deployed maps of soils at risk of landslide as the basis for their removal. In debating removals, both city officials and residents turned to soil as a forensic site, using soil’s qualities as evidence of conflicting accounts of a 1987 landslide to support their arguments about property. While forensics in transitional justice generally centers exhumations as a source of truth about crime during conflict, it was not corpses exhumed from the soil, but soil itself that became an object of forensic inquiry. This challenged official narratives of transition and reconfigured both property and territorial relations, in turn shaping the possibilities for war and peace.


February 19 @ 12pm – Bikrum Singh Gill, Virginia Tech

Against the Rule of Property: Violence, Land Reclamation, and Decolonization

This talk considers the significance of revolutionary land reform to the decolonization of world order.  It does so by examining the implications of two distinct anti-colonial land reform trajectories: an armed peasant-led path (in China) and a “non-violent” bourgeois/landlord-led path (in India). Historically, the armed peasant-led revolutionary path advanced, insofar as it fundamentally overturned the colonial/imperial landed order, a more substantive decolonization than the “non-violent” path which functioned to protect the landed order instituted by the colonial state.  Nevertheless, as post-apartheid South Africa and the Oslo Peace Process in Palestine illustrate, the armed peasant-led trajectory would come to be largely abandoned in the post-Cold War and neoliberal context. It is within such a context, I argue, that the return of anti-colonial land reclamation in Zimbabwe and Palestine in the early twenty-first century assumes world-historical significance, interrupting the liberal “end of history” thesis of the “rule of property” with the ontological re-emergence of those dispossessed by colonial property regimes.


March 18 @ 12pm – Dara Orenstein, George Washington University

Escape from Liberty Island: Lower Manhattan Against the World, 1973-2001


March 25 @ 12pm – Anne Bonds, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

With a response from John N. Robinson III, Princeton Assistant Professor of Sociology

Propertied Power and Infrastructures of Resistance in the Urban North

The Mapping Racism and Resistance project examines the critical role of racial covenants, as they worked together with other anti-Black housing practices, in restricting access to housing and producing racial segregation in Milwaukee County. Our research is also centered on uncovering the challenges made by Black Milwaukeeans in response to racial covenants. Drawing from this work, I consider housing as racialized property and the ways in which property and race are mutually articulated through the dialectics of (dis)possession and struggle.


April 10 @ 12pm – Kristin Lee Hoganson, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Structures of Power: Engineering Empire in the Circum-Caribbean

In the early twentieth century, U.S. companies obtained an array of concessions to build hydraulic, power, and transportation systems across the Caribbean region, from Mexico to Venezuela and on islands such as Cuba and Hispaniola. The U.S. mining, plantation, forestry, and petroleum companies that operated in the area also shaped the built environment through private infrastructural systems, intended for wealth extraction, that became defacto public systems. To more fully grasp the expanding footprint of the United States in the region, that is, to understand the reach of U.S. power and its impact on the ground, we need to grasp the nature, politics, extent, and legacies of these infrastructural projects.