Communal re -appropriation of blighted spaces: Governmentality and the politics of everyday life in the Kensington recovery house movement

Robert P. Fairbanks, University of Pennsylvania


Philadelphia faces a “new” poverty in the neoliberal era, shaped by the interconnecting forces of postindustrial decline, welfare state retrenchment, and the devolution of public authority. Among the most prominent street-level poverty survival configurations to have emerged in the fallout of these trends is the Kensington recovery house movement. Recovery houses can best be described as a collective housing strategy for drug addicts and alcoholics located in the city's poorest and most heavily blighted zones. The purpose of this dissertation is to explain ethnographically the ways in which the recovery house movement forges links between the survival mechanisms of poor subjects and the projects of the declining welfare state in postindustrial Philadelphia. Using Foucault's notion of governmentality as a conceptual frame, ethnographic research was conducted on the internal strategies by which recovery houses refashion poor subjects into recovering citizens. This analysis illustrates how recovering subjects have become able partners of, and facilitators for, the projects of the postwelfare state—ranging from devolution, to retrenchment, to political demobilization, to the war on dependency. Secondarily, the dissertation exposes connections between the daily operations endemic to recovery house culture and the broader political culture of Philadelphia. By analyzing the question of recovery house persistence, a variegated regime of regulation and tolerance is revealed among city elites that ranges from strategic indifference, to non-intervention, to direct intervention. This secondary level of analysis elucidates the ways that recovery houses have become situated within the fabric of Philadelphia's social service sector as a mechanism of the “shadow” welfare state. Ultimately, the dissertation argues that the morally-laden discourse of self-help is ready-made for the restructurings of the postwelfare state; which hold self-governance, personal responsibility, autonomy, and enterprising activity as pre-requisites for good citizenship. These factors, taken together, help to explain the persistence and proliferation of an illegal, unlicensed, and irregular form of housing settlement located conspicuously in areas of spatially concentrated poverty.

Subject Area

Welfare|Cultural anthropology|Social work

Recommended Citation

Fairbanks, Robert P., "Communal re -appropriation of blighted spaces: Governmentality and the politics of everyday life in the Kensington recovery house movement" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3152031.