Unreal Property

Isaac Stein (MLA II, MDes R+R ‘20), Maggie Tsang (MDes ULE ‘19)


Image Credit: By authors

From a point on the South line of Bienville Boulevard, that is coincident with the West line of Block “T”, run thence Westwardly along the South line of Bienville Boulevard a distance of 160 feet to a point; thence turning an angle of 90 degrees 00 minutes to the left run Southwardly a distance of 350 feet to a point; thence turning an angle of 90 degrees 00 minutes to the right run Westwardly a distance of 126.5 feet, to an iron pipe with a concrete collar, thence run due North on said West line 352.26 feet to an iron pipe with a concrete collar on the South line of Bienville Boulevard; thence run Easterwardly along said South line 86.75 feet to the place of beginning.

The property herein described is yours. Also, it is underwater.

Four lines at right angles, narrated like a set of directions, filed away in the record of deeds, is what generally constitutes a formal, legal description of real property in the United States. The nuanced physical characteristics of land, or the fact that land may no longer exist, feature minimally if at all in the official record. Instead, artificial lines that delineate the boundaries of ownership are superimposed onto an abstracted, fixed space: terra firma. This fundamental practice has been underway for centuries: the territorial sovereignty of the United States is predicated on the transformation of land into discrete, calculable parcels.

But on the coastlines, the boundaries and limits of private property are being put to the test. Dauphin Island, a barrier island off the coast of Alabama, is geomorphologically predisposed to migrate landward overtime and is highly susceptible to tidal action and sediment movement. Large swathes of the shoreline regularly erode and accrete. And yet, private property has dominated the landscape — after every storm, sand is restored, and homes are rebuilt and propped up with taxpayer money. Today, nearly sixty “beachfront” parcels abutting the Gulf of Mexico, platted on land in 1953, are now completely submerged. Though common law attributes title of submerged property to the state, on Dauphin Island, owners of these submerged lots still pay their taxes and can technically claim ownership. Here, on this contested coastline, property assumes its purest form as a social construct. Divorced from physical realities of the ground, these submerged parcels don’t enclose land, but rather circumscribe interested parties that mutually agree on the abstraction and commodification of space.

Thus, despite radical changes in the environment, the political, social, and economic institutions in the United States have proven anathema to change and have demonstrated their absurd desire to subsidize the concept of private property despite the actuarial cost. Land movement and sea level rise on barrier islands, however, holds a mirror to the conundrum of the private property regime in America and reveals, in the words of Theodore Steinberg: “Real estate is not as real, solid, or lasting as it may seem...Real property, like land is supposed to stay put; that is what distinguishes it from, say, personal property, which can be moved or carried around, [but] nature’s complexity can at times make ownership a precarious, even unreal affair.”


  1. Mobile County Records. Real Property Book 897, Page 35.

  2. David Twichell et. al. 2014. The Shallow Stratigraphy and Sand Resources Offshore of the Mississippi

    Barrier Island. U. S. Geological Survey Open-File Report. 2011-1173.

  3. Theodore Steinberg. Slide Mountain or the Folly of Owning Nature . (Berkeley, CA: The University of

    California Press, 1995), p. 5.

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