The historical trajectories of inner city residential neighbourhoods have been the subject of academic investigation and public policy formation since the interwar period (in the United States) of the last century. Since the 1960s greater sensitivity to the housing needs and uses of class- and ethnically-differentiated groups, and the structural diversity of households has gained ground in both fields in Canada and the USA. Living on Furby exemplifies this trend by attempting to analytically link experiences of home and the structural development of inner city Winnipeg by examining the trajectory of a single residential block between Broadway and Portage Ave.
As the product of a collaboration between an academic historian (Burley) and a journalist (Maunder) with ties to a non-profit housing society in West Broadway (the area around Furby Street), the book is a reflective moment in a revitalization project (rehabilitating housing for a mix of tenants, and integration through community services and activism) that it documents in its final chapter. Stretching from its settlement between the 1880s and 1910s by respectable middle class Anglo-Canadian families (as owners and tenants), the book follows the block through a transition to lower middle class rooming houses in the interwar period, a postwar revitalization linked to immigrant home ownership that was often enabled by boarding, and its gradual physical decline through absentee landlordism as the neighbourhood was transformed by socio-economic adjustments and the migration of poor, and particularly Aboriginal, groups to the wider area.
A significant contribution of the study is to show how demographic change and family lifecycles bear upon neighbourhood transition. Without the appearance of a coherent group willing to take possession of properties and adapt the lines of their household to fit the physical characteristics of the houses, disinvestment ensued from the 1920s through to the 1940s because of ‘the waning interest of owners in maintaining the residential character of the neighbourhood’ (38). The children of the postwar owners often formed roots elsewhere, in a sense enabled in their class mobility (or status maintenance) by their parents’ choices, and these owners or the investment companies that replaced them did not sustain the networks of sociability and surveillance work of an earlier time.
The book draws upon a variety of sources (newspapers, directories, assessment records, interviews, written accounts, court documents) not just to reconstruct the block’s characteristics over time, but to reveal how the lifecycles of houses intersect with personal life stories. The narratives of home constructed about residents of Furby street involve taking the concept of home as an accumulation of expectations and experiences of domestic life, so that Furby becomes a setting for realizing home and creating new traces carried forward when residents leave the block. In the early chapters of the book, insights concerning the historically specific constructions of home come in the form of suggestive facts such as the prevalence of tenancy among upper middle class families, and the acceptability of roomers as the departure of children left space available in the family home. In the post-war period, the sources allow far more substance for the discussion: a particular sense of home is linked to routines of gendered domestic labour and the familiar interactions and surveillance of tenants and the neighbourhood. The capacity of roomers to enact home life are shown to depend upon their interaction with the space, other tenants and their landlord or caretaker. The constructed narratives of home reflect on how residents managed their safety, how a porch could enable Aboriginal people to gather in extended kin patterns, the availability of sociability as part of a ‘party’ culture and related demands for intervention to limit its disruptions, or finally, how some made the most of being left alone. The revitalization chapter suggests ways in which tenants altered their behaviour with consequences for their sense of home when institutional supports appeared. They often unfurled practices of making a home that were limited when a rough and often violent environment seemed to prevail.
The book includes significant material on how diverse residents have made homes out of varied social, cultural and physical circumstances and how those experiences played in their lives. As concerns the policy implications identified in the book, the work will help direct greater attention to enabling diverse groups to achieve a sense of home. The text flows smoothly into several policy discussions (merit of forms of tenure, fate of displaced ‘inferior’ tenants during revitalization) on the basis of the book’s overall analytical approach. This involves treating actors as seeking through strategies to realize concepts of home. The project’s dimensions and interest in sustaining policy touch-points recommend this approach but it displaces an historiographical preoccupation with understanding by what processes home was realized. Nevertheless, the book contains passages (especially in the chapters on postwar ‘Rooming Homes’ and ‘Aboriginal Experiences’) that raise the issue of the practical realization of home via gendered routines particular to classes and community groups. Knowledge of the latter is critically important for understanding how different groups have influenced and benefitted from housing institutions and policies. Living on Furby contributes to our knowledge of neighbourhood transition and suggests new directions for research by presenting evidence of the varied conceptual and practical resources used to realize home in a Canadian city in the last century.