This article offers an analysis of a “sympathetic public” cohering around the U.S. welfare state’s wreckage that is tuned to the material dimensions of emplacement. It does this through an exploration of efforts to bring a national public housing museum to Chicago. Museum supporters mobilized the properties of ruined public housing to summon affinities and identifications with America’s poor and to reconfigure public reckoning about poverty in the United States. The public examined here is an anticipated one. Conceptually, I depart from text-based understandings of publics and publicity. I follow how museum supporters sought to curate encounters with ruined housing in ways that would socialize beholders into the attentiveness necessary to reflect and act properly on poverty. The “sympathetic” dimensions of this anticipated public operate on two levels. First, future visitors’ identifications with the struggles of bygone residents would combat “unsympathetic” representations of America’s poor. Second, visceral contact with a place once inhabited by bygone residents would render contagious the perspectives, values, and practices they used to navigate social inequality and state-mediated neglect. The anticipated public then also anticipates the kind of citizenry capable of managing social protection at a “post-Welfare” moment.
Cultural Anthropology has published a number of number articles on the built environment, including Donald S. Moore’s ‘Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place: Remapping Resistance in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands’ (1998), Danny Hoffman’s ‘The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolinial African Cities' (2008), and Tom Looser’s ‘The Global University, Area Studies, and the World Citizen: Neoliberal Geography’s Redistribution of the “World” (2012).
Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on sympathy, including Danilyn Rutherford’s ‘Sympathy, State Building, and the Experience of Empire’ (2000) and Nils Bubant’s ‘From the Enemy’s Point of View: Violence, Empathy, and the Ethnography of Fakes’ (2009).
About the Author
Catherine Fennell’s work examines the cultural transformation of the American welfare state and the effects of this transformation on the politics of citizenship, belonging and race within redeveloping cities. Through ethnographic research, Fennell focus on how large-scale changes in the urban built environment shape the ways in which urbanites come to understand social difference, and practice new forms of social care, concern and intimacy. In particular, Fenell is interested in how the sensory and affective qualities of everyday urban life cultivate personal attachments to a place, as well as compel private commitments to the people associated with that place.
The following videos are a news segment produced by CNN on the demolition of Cabrini Green, a public housing in Chicago.
Interview with Catherine Fennell
Fayana Richards: It is interesting to understand how people get started with their research. With that being said, how did you come to focus on this topic?
Catherine Fennell: I came to graduate school in 2001 with an interest in urban revitalization but also urban decay. I spent a lot of time as a kid and young adult in cities that seemed to have an uneven and fraught trajectory on this front, like Philadelphia and D.C.. I arrived in Chicago for graduate school just about the same time the city was beginning a massive and ambitious experiment to overhaul its public housing. For someone interested in issues of urban decay and revitalization, it seemed like a great opportunity to settle deeply into a topic and a set of questions that fascinated me. I didn't want to pass that chance up by going elsewhere to do my research. I was lucky to have advisors who encouraged me to take a risk on a project that was unusual within anthropology. They insisted that the criteria for a long-term project should be my own curiosity, regardless of where it took me. And that really made all the difference.
Fayana Richards: In the article, you mention Fordist welfare states. What is the relationship between Fordist welfare states and material infrastructures that we see in Chicago?
Catherine Fennell: The material legacies of Fordist-Keynesian welfare state are evident throughout many cities and suburbs of the U.S. -- Chicago is not at all special on this front. Fordism was an industrial order based on mass production but also mass consumption. In the U.S., citizens participated in this order inasmuch as they held regular, salaried jobs but also inasmuch as they could consume all manner of goods: cars, appliances, houses etc. During the New Deal, governmental programs emerged to protect citizens (in their capacity as salaried workers) from the vagaries of markets. One of these programs was a national system of "low rent homes," what came to be known as "public housing". So, alongside heavily subsidized private home mortgages, public housing should be seen as part of a larger "housing project" deployed by the American welfare state to protect its workers and their families. But public and private housing is just one among several material infrastructures established by the Fordist-Keynesian welfare state. Consider for what was necessary to support the expansion of these housing infrastructures following WW2. For instance in Chicago, high-rise public housing towers arrived about the same time "urban renewal" and interstate construction made the city accessible to cars and opened up the surrounding area for massive suburban development. Housing, transit, defense -- these are all overlapping infrastructures of the Fordist-Keynesian welfare state in the U.S.
Fayana Richards: Was there any concern over the intentions of the museum being taken out of context?
Catherine Fennell: Of course. The museum supporters were well aware that the project might be take out of context in ways that could cause controversy. They understood that museums traditionally touch upon topics that the passage of time has blunted, maybe made a little safer. For instance, people might be willing to examine a difficult event if it happened 60 or 100 years ago. Obviously, affordable housing, ongoing residential segregation by race and class, and the unraveling of government oversight within public but also private housing -- these are issues that are as alive and controversial today as they were in 2004 when I started following efforts to bring a public housing museum to Chicago. But the people who I worked with did not shy away from the challenges that come with addressing a very alive and controversial topic in a museum. I would say that many even saw embracing such difficult topic as critical for coming up with creative and critical interventions in the field of housing. I admire them for taking a huge risk, especially because they were well aware of the challenges and naysayers ahead of them.
Fayana Richards: Why did you decide to focus on supporters of the museum instead of former tenants?
Catherine Fennell: My first anthropology class came in graduate school, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot taught it. He started the course by insisting that we pay attention to how "the geography of the imagination" was intertwined with "the geography of management," and came back to this point again and again throughout the quarter. It made quite an impression on me: If anthropology is going to take seriously the lives and aspirations of marginalized people, anthropologists also have to take seriously the lives and aspirations of non-marginalized people. Sure, these lives and aspirations intersect. But more than just coming into contact with each other, these aspirations and lives become conditions of possibility for each other. If we want to understand how poverty is managed in the urban U.S., it's important to of course work closely with people who are poor, but we also need to ask how those who are not poor encounter poverty -- imaginatively, in place, etc. So, I decided to focus on the outside supporters because they were tuned into the work of fashioning a museum experience that would appeal to a wide range of people, not just the former tenants of public housing.
Fayana Richards: Did you ever get the chance to meet with any of the former tenants?
Catherine Fennell: Yes. I worked closely with tenants transitioning out of public housing throughout my fieldwork. And to be clear, former tenants were involved in the museum development process, from the beginning. In fact, the idea for a museum originally came from a tenant group. I chose however to focus on a different dynamic of the Museum in the article.
Fayana Richards: Are there any other topics or issues that you weren’t able to share in the article?
Catherine Fennell: Sure. I'm interested in the museum coalition movement that inspired the early museum supporters. It's a global movement that has really pushed the boundaries of what we understand "cultural heritage" to be. For instance, how have tragic events thought to "belong" to a particular people become something like "cultural patrimony"? I'm also very interested in further exploring the experiential aesthetics of social conscience at play in the museum, because I see similar aesthetics deployed in contemporary ethnographic writing and narrative.
Fayana Richards: Do you have any other current research projects in Chicago?
Catherine Fennell: Yes. I am working on a book about public housing reform on Chicago's Near West Side. I also hope soon to begin a new project about mortgage foreclosure and the building deconstruction movement in the urban Midwest.
Questions for Classroom Discussion
1. What is a Fordist welfare state? Discuss this concept in historical context of public housing reform in Chicago.
2. What does Fennell mean by 'sympathetic public'?
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