An Anthropologist Asks Tough Questions About Urban Housing

Catherine Fennell’s current project about public housing in the Midwest has received a faculty grant from the Office of the Provost.

Eve Glasberg
October 11, 2022

Catherine Fennell teaches in the Anthropology Department and has a joint appointment with the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Her work examines how the social and material legacies of 20th-century urbanism shape the politics of social difference, collective obligation, and utopian imagination in the contemporary U.S. She has a special interest in the future of subsidized housing, and the transformation of urban built environments.

Her work combines ethnographic and archival research to animate problems that resonate beyond the industrial cities where she has conducted research: How should we understand the ethics of urban life in places characterized by intense forms of social abandonment, economic disinvestment, environmental degradation, and racial and economic segregation? 

Fennell discusses her work with Columbia News, along with how she came to be an urban anthropologist, and advice for anyone contemplating the same path. She will take part in a GSAPP panel discussion, Soil, Land, Fill, at the Buell Center on October 20.

How did your latest project, Ends of the House: Racism and Remediation in the Late Industrial Midwest, come about?

I cut my teeth as an anthropologist and ethnographer trying to make sense of an ambitious urban planning experiment—the demolition and redevelopment of public housing in Chicago. Over time I became concerned that the sheer spectacle of this effort and comparable ones in other cities distracted from the fact that residential demolition has been an utterly mundane and ubiquitous event in disinvested neighborhoods for decades. I wanted to flip the lens of my first book—Last Project Standing: Civics and Sympathy in Post-Welfare Chicago—and consider what I could both ask and learn if we position the wasting and demolition of homes as the ground rather than the exception of contemporary American urbanism.

Why, for instance, do Americans accept the normalization of residential structures built to last 20 years?  Why do we accept that the limited funds committed to affordable housing rarely include funds committed to maintaining them so that they can continue standing and providing sound shelter? What are the health and landscape effects of simply throwing housing away every few decades? What do we make of the fact that it’s easier to mobilize funds to demolish homes than it is to build them, let alone address negative human and ecological health outcomes caused by so much demolition?

Why is urban housing—everything from displacement, disinvestment, and demolition to maintenance, renewal, and redevelopment—seen as critical to racial, social, and environmental justice?

There are two ways to answer this. The first has to do with the fact that the immediate interior condition of homes affects those living within them. We find it easier to talk about things like lead poisoning or radiator burns as effects of irresponsible caregiving or a couple of bad actors at the water treatment facility than we do for what I’ve learned to see them as—evidence of systemic neglect or under-maintenance.

This sort of neglect and under-maintenance can and should be situated in a series of decisions about investment or the uneven means to invest in residential maintenance. If you’re a homeowner shouldering the demands of a sharply regressive property tax system, or if you’ve landed in predatory property tax debt bundling arrangements, you don’t really have extra funds lying around for critical improvements on your property. Homes come down quickly with a wrecking ball, and more slowly through weathering, arson, tax burdens, liens, and under-maintenance. But we tend to only call one of these processes demolition.

The second thing to consider is that demolished buildings, however they are destroyed, don’t really ever go away. Roughly a quarter of material in American landfills is construction and demolition debris. For all the stuff that lands in those heaps though, a lot of stuff lands elsewhere in forms that are both visible and less so. My interlocutors have taught me to consider the health effects of things like demolition dust. But they also contend with the fact that the very ground they might want to garden or play in is not a ground in the received sense of the term: It’s comprised of the leavings of past residential demolitions. I want people to understand that any call for housing justice invariably will touch on reforming the financial and ecological mechanisms that manage housing.

What was your path to a career in academia, and how did you come to specialize in urban anthropology?

As a young person, I had active interests in planning and environmental issues. I also enjoyed research and writing, the process of throwing my head at a problem, or the challenge of phrasing it again and again and arriving at some place I could not have imagined at the outset. I came through some trial and error and thwarted paths to understand that the kinds of questions I wanted to ask, and the ways I wanted to ask them, would not be possible as a planner or a journalist. Anthropology attracted me because it would involve openness of the field and the chance to engage in long-term, in-depth, collaborative research. Unfortunately, I have seen the virtues of slow thinking under assault even in the academy, and I hope this can be countered.

Advice for anyone going into the field of anthropology or higher education in general?

My advice would be to understand that as special as it is to make a living reading, writing, and throwing around ideas with sharp people, the university is far from the only place where one can pursue a life of the mind. If you can develop both the capacity to pose your questions and the confidence to pursue them, then you’ll have ideas in your life forever.

What are you teaching this fall?

This semester I’m teaching two undergraduate seminars. One introduces students to race and related concepts in mostly American social thought; the other explores the reanimation of whiteness in contemporary American politics.

What's the best part of teaching at Columbia?

The students. I started teaching here in 2009, and always found the undergraduates to be smart, serious, and driven. Yet something is different at this moment. I think that nobody takes the classroom space for granted now. I’ve noticed a sincere eagerness among the undergraduates to engage one another, to learn with one another, and to support each other in posing and engaging the questions that they find important. They are giving each other the space to think and refine their ideas, but also their curiosity. They are cooking up all manner of projects that have relevance in, but also beyond, the classroom. It’s a real pleasure to be able to witness this—their curiosity is infectious.

For more information on the grants program in the Provost's Office, there are Junior Faculty and Mid-Career Faculty Grants for projects that contribute to the diversity goals of the University.