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169 5 The City, the Grassroots, the Poverty Pimps Onemorninginearly2006,arefrigeratorwasheduponmydoorstep. On the West Side, the unfurnished private rentals within reach of lower-income people are just that—absolutely unfurnished. Public housing units come with a stove and refrigerator. Yet tenants in private , unsubsidized rentals must move in with their own appliances. I had not accounted for such an expense, so when I first moved in, a friendtaughtmehowto make dowithameshbag suspendedoutside from the windowsill. This worked well during the fall, but it was no permanent fix as the weather got colder and milk and eggs began to freeze.Whenwordofmyproblemgotaround,anotherfriendoffered to sell me a cheap minifridge. But there on the icy sidewalk, strapped to a dolly, stood a large white refrigerator. The four men beside it insisted that I accept it as a loan, a token of appreciation for helping men in “the community.” For several months I had been keeping minutesforagroupwhocalledthemselves“Prisons-to-Community.” They met regularly to hammer out proposals for a social services program that would address the housing and health needs of local ex-offenders. Criminal convictions barred such men from Chicago Housing Authority leases, but many nevertheless stayed off lease with friends and family in Westhaven.1 I hesitated to accept the refrigerator . It was much larger than I needed, and I could not imagine how I would ever move it from the apartment. But they insisted. They promised to return when I left to cart it off to someone else “in the community” who was “needy” and “deserving.” This refrigerator belonged to no one. This refrigerator belonged to everyone. It also belonged to a federally sponsored program that gave needy children something to eat during the summer when they no longer had access to free meals at school. I learned this months later at a planning meeting convened by the Near West Side Community Development Corporation. Near West’s staff were updating a Quality 170 THE CITY, THE GRASSROOTS, THE POVERTY PIMPS of Life Plan for Greater Westhaven. They had received a grant from theLocalInitiativesSupportCouncil(LISC)tofundthisprocess.The largest community-development support organization in the country , LISC provides financial and technical assistance to communitydevelopment organizations. But to meet the conditions of their grant, Near West’s staff needed to show that their planning process elicited broad “participation” from newcomers and long-term residents. That evening Near West gathered representatives of both groups to discuss Notice posted on an interior glass door of the Annex’s lobby, 2009. Leasing criteria prohibited renting to people with recent violent criminal offenses, but it was also difficult for Westhaven residents to shelter relatives who returned from prison. 171 THE CITY, THE GRASSROOTS, THE POVERTY PIMPS potentialamenities.Whenthemeetingbrokeup,transitioningHorner residents made their way to the refreshments table to load up on food and to “fix a plate” to take home. In a place where poverty could be a gnawingfactoflife,oneneighbor’srefreshmentswereanother’sdinner. A middle-aged transitioning Horner resident active in development politics pulled me aside. She asked for the loaner’s serial number. “It’s a refrigerator missing from the Food Site,” Ollie explained in hushed tones. “People say ‘the researcher’s got it.’” My stomach dropped. A missing refrigerator could mean that the site that hosted the children’s meal program would lose its bid to continue operating that coming summer. Children would have to travel furtherformeals.Regularvolunteerswouldlosetheirmodeststipends and the chance to redistribute uneaten meals. The refrigerator occupied a critical node in a local redistribution network. A rumor that accusedmeofinterruptingitsworkwouldreflectpoorlyonme .Exasperatedwithmypanic ,Olliewhisperedthatmyloanerwasnot“stolen.”In aplacewhererefrigerators“walkedoff,”thisonehadbeensafeguarded for those who needed it, as opposed to those who would sell it, or worse,scrapit.Olliethenwalkedthroughotheraccusationsthatmight stick to the exchange. I was not “greedy” for accepting the refrigerator; I had not helped myself to too much of a thing that belonged to everyone . Nor were the men who loaned it to me “corrupted”—a charge that fell on those whose activities destroyed collective resources. Ollie saved the most serious charge that could be levied against an outsider forlast.Iwasnota“povertypimp”becauseIwasnot“takingsomething away and it never comes back.” I was not, added her eavesdropping friend,anoutsider“livingoffpoorpeopleasrawmaterial.”Ofcourse,I should have added, that depends on how you see “research.” Proponents of HOPE VI expected that by fostering everyday sociability among a diverse set of neighbors, the program would promote, as one policy pamphlet from 2000 put it, “the evolution of real communities , which act to preserve their physical and social environment over the long term.”2 These ideas drew on...


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