- Last Project Standing: Civics and Sympathy in Post-Welfare Chicago by Catherine Fennell
Last Project Standing: Civics and Sympathy in Post-Welfare Chicago
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
307 pages, 26 black-and-white illustrations, 4 color plates (30 black-and-white and color illustrations in Kindle edition).
ISBN: 978-081-669736-6, $105.00 HB
ISBN: 978-081-669737-3, $30.00 PB
The tales and travails of public housing in Chicago have provided a rich trove of disturbing materials for countless journalists and academic authors over the past several decades. Bradford Hunt provides an excellent history of the Chicago Housing Authority's epically troubled past in Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing (2009). Much of the other writing has entailed place-specific documentation of the decline and fall of "the projects"—told either through harrowing accounts of personal histories such as Alex Kotlowitz's best-selling There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (1991) or by autopsies of those failed policies intended to rectify conditions, typified by The Hidden War: Crime and the Tragedy of Public Housing in Chicago, by Susan J. Popkin, Victoria E. Gwiasda, Lynn M. Olson, Dennis Rosenbaum, and Larry Buron (2000). Since 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority has embarked on its much-needed Plan for Transformation, now known as Plan Forward, a multi-billion-dollar monumental effort to replace or rehabilitate 25,000 units of the city's public housing stock. This controversial transformation, in turn, has led to at least a hundred articles and reports, as well as several book-length studies and multiple dissertations.1
Given this well-trodden ground, it is especially remarkable that Catherine Fennell's Last Project Standing: Civics and Sympathy in Post-Welfare Chicago has something new to say. As an anthropologist, Fennell chooses different lenses through which to view the everyday human experience of life in these troubled, transforming environments than other authors have. She makes clear upfront that unlike most other previous work, she has contributed neither a policy book nor one that is centrally a community study—even though her book is firmly set in a single place. Instead, based on six years of meeting the residents and neighborhood service providers, including intensive ethnographic fieldwork between 2005 and 2007 with periodic follow-up visits for several years thereafter, she delves into a deeper exploration of what she terms the "materialist concept of sympathy" (24) in a neoliberal era. Stated more simply, Fennell seeks to understand who takes responsibility for the care of a city's least-advantaged residents, a question made more urgent by the erosion of the welfare state during the past twenty years. The book is therefore both about the construction of blame and about the assumption—and limitations—of sympathetic responses.
Fennell's site is the erstwhile Henry Horner Homes on Chicago's Near West Side, which had previously been the setting for Kotlowitz's account of the impossibility of childhood in the violent world of Chicago public housing. Last Project Standing takes on the next phases of the story, examining the social consequences of Horner's tortuous transition from a poor, segregated tower-inthe-park complex of serial mid-rises and high-rises into the mixed-income, mostly low-rise New Urbanist community of Westhaven. Redevelopment at Horner started in 1995, with a first phase completed in 2001; however, a second phase of construction is still ongoing more than two decades after the transformation commenced.
The book is structured into three major sections, labeled "Sympathy," "Civics," and "Publics." To get at the notion of sympathy, Fennell examines the simplistic but pervasive assumption that "immediate contact between the people and things of changing public housing would cause the positive qualities, dispositions, and commitments embodied in one group to rub off on the other" (i.e., role modeling of "mainstream work habits and security commitments"), before moving on to more ambitious hopes for sympathetic learning (12). The chapters dealing with civics explore the extent to which contact across groups could teach everyone "the practices of sociability and obligation necessary...