Personal Structures of Support (Part 3)


When I move through Philadelphia, much of what I observe and experience is filtered through the ideas expounded by the philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich. The connecting thread throughout his work is rather straightforward: Our industrial-scaled institutions and tools have overpowered us to such a totalizing degree that we are no longer able to disentangle ourselves from their colonizing effects. That is, schools and universities, governments and public agencies, and corporations of all kinds have greatly diminished our individual and collective capacity to provide for ourselves and each other.

Another way to understand Illich is to describe a spectrum of connectedness to ourselves, each other, and the world. At one end of this spectrum is a set of relationships with the world that is convivial—amicable, human-scaled, life-supporting, present. At the other end is the impersonal and alienating mechanism of industrialization that amounts to a profound dehumanization. In Philadelphia, I see ample evidence of lives being lived at either end of this spectrum and at many points in between. On the side of conviviality are cooperative preschools, neighborhood food coops, time banks, and community gardens, while on the side of industrialization are coroporatized charter schools, welfare offices, fast “food” chain restaurants, and acres of vacant, fallow land cordoned off by the city. Illich invites us to combat the alienating forces of industrialization by reclaiming our capacity to support each other through meaningful interchange, to rely less on the dominant institutions of contemporary society, and to lean more on each other.

This is a tall order to fill. His challenge is impossibly audacious. I suspect that, for many of us, we have never thought very deliberately about the kinds of support structures we do have or might need to live more fully with our communities.

In the Think Tank that has yet to be named, one of our primary research interests is in exploring the structures of support that people create and maintain in order to live a life. By asking people about their support structures, we hope to learn how to build more resilient and robust support structures in the future. In part, I see this work as answering Illich’s call. His oeuvre charts a trajectory away from industrial institutions and values toward the deschooling (de-institutionalization) of society, the creation of tools that support conviviality, and the reclaiming of values grounded in more communal ways of life. The trajectory of our research on the structures of support aligns precisely with these goals.

At a basic level, examining the structures of support begins with this question: How is it that some get by so well, while others barely get by, or not at all? There is a political debate regarding this question that is rehearsed ad infinitum. Those on the left will push for more government social services and assistance (the state controlled social safety net), which necessitates the increasing institutionalization and bureaucratization of most aspects of life in the name of efficiency. On the right lies the counterargument that less government oversight and the selling off of public entities, services, and infrastructure to the private sector will somehow generate a just society (this coupled with the moralizing myth of bootstrapping and personal responsibility). It should be noted that whether public or private in nature, the sheer scale of the resulting public agencies, non-profit organizations, or multinational corporations is such that they all further the industrialization of daily life. This is a gross oversimplification, which should not be taken as flippant, because politics have very palpable consequences at the level of the neighborhood and the individual. But, in returning to the question posed at the outset of this paragraph, I believe that our attention and energy must be focused on understanding how individual citizens can live communally in our streets and blocks.

With my partner (Think Tank collaborator, Meredith Warner) and two children, I live in a neighborhood called Germantown, which happens to be one of the oldest settlements in Philadelphia. Today, quaintly restored colonial buildings—George Washington’s summer home is here, Thomas Jefferson slept over there, the first abolitionists met just around the corner—are interspersed throughout a large and diverse urban district that runs the gamut in terms of racial, economic, and class constituencies. There is an omnipresent yet guarded historical quality to the neighborhood, locked away with few exceptions behind placards recounting the long past events that impart to it the official textbook history. Like most of Philadelphia, Germantown is “block to block”, which is a way we talk about the unevenness of the city with respect to degrees of safety, disinvestment, and abandonment as they materialize, often drastically, from one block to the next.

We’ve lived here for nearly three years, and there is still so much we do not know about this place. We do not know the extent of its outer edges, its urban nooks, its quiet side streets, its vacant lots and abandoned buildings. We do, however, know our block, and those blocks surrounding ours. We know the various paths we routinely walk during the course of our regular and rhythmic movements within the neighborhood. These include: to and from the train station, to and from the library, to and from the drugstore, to and from the park, to and from the community garden. We walk often in the evenings with our kids, in a final push to drain their endless energy. We walk “the loop”, as it is known to us, and we anticipate the things that we’ll meet along the way—the houses of people we know, the long wall the kids walk on, the empty parking lot they run screaming circles in, the front porch with the old, tired cats, the cactus in the sidewalk where more than once they’ve caught stickers in their tiny fingers. Some evenings, our loop is detoured by a stroll along the “secret alley”, so called because it is an overgrown, infrequently travelled street that runs along the backside of large urban residential lots filled with formative old houses topped by rusty weathervanes and patchworks of slate and asphalt roofs.

Less frequently, we venture further outside of this radius—a range established by the maximum capacity of little legs with limited patience—to explore unfamiliar territory, much of it dotted by the string of colonial-era historic sites and houses that partly give Germantown its distinct character: Wyck, Grumblethorpe, Germantown Friends, Johnson House and others. But this is a living city, and so along the way we find the spaces that give a place texture: commercial corridors, neat brick rowhouses, grand stone twins, churches of all denominations and sizes, ancient graveyards, well-used and disused parks, faded storefronts, crumbling warehouses, vacant lots. This is a living neighborhood, a working neighborhood, a struggling neighborhood filled with people doing all of the things that people do: waiting for buses, waving hellos to friends and neighbors, buying lottery tickets and newspapers at the kiosks, smoking, idling on corners, visiting libraries, worshipping in churches, sleeping on park benches, hustling passersby, waiting in lines, drinking coffee, yelling and laughing, getting by and not getting by.

So, how is that some get by so well, while others barely get by, or not at all?

The leaders and policymakers of cities will commission and then point to countless metrics in order to understand the relative health of a city, of a neighborhood, of a block: median home price and median income, percentages of the population on public assistance or incarcerated, statistics on who has or has not completed various levels of schooling, number of abandoned properties or parks per capita, number of reported incidents of violence or abuse. In referring to these metrics on a daily basis, we have given them control over the narrative we construct about our city, and that narrative is frequently one of violence, poverty, and trauma. It is the narrative of all the things we lack and all the ways we are broken. This quantitative data is useful, perhaps, in the way that symptoms can help a patient begin a conversation with her doctor about what ails her. In cities, with more sophisticated data and analysis, the symptoms may be interpreted in such a way that the stories they tell are nuanced and insightful. Yet, symptoms, as indicators of root causes, are often dislocated in time and space from their causal origins (as if any such moments could be identified at all). Symptoms, in the form of charts and graphs or even dynamic data visualizations, need to be contextualized with the stories told by those who live in between the data points, who live in the streets and on the blocks in relation to those next to them who tell stories as well.

I believe that we must daylight the underlying structures of support in our communities and build bridges within these structures where the connections are failing or absent. For a city like Philadelphia and a neighborhood like Germantown, this means mapping, person by person and block by block, the individual networks of support along with the resources that exist within these networks. It requires identifying those who are resource-rich and creating links between them and those who are resource-poor, in effect creating a commons of generosity and exchange.

My partner and I are keenly aware of our reliance on those around us for support, and that we and our children would not have the life we live—and might not get by—without their generosity. Reciprocally, we try to be deliberate in how we support others, and how we model that for our kids. The way in which we build and sustain a network of support among our family, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens radiates outward, emanating from the daily choices we make in our lives. Increasingly, I am striving to design an intentional life for myself and my family, one that acknowledges the interconnectedness of our every action with the world and that countermands the false apart-ness we are made to feel toward ourselves, each other, and our environment. The multitude of answers to the question of how we get by is of common interest to all of us. In sharing our individual support structures we take the first step toward building from the ground up a communal network of resources which leverages peer to peer, family to family, and neighborhood to neighborhood connections.

We’ll be developing a more locally-grown response to structures of support this summer as part of  Germantown City Hall, a collaboration with Jacob Wick and Information Department for the 2013 Hidden City Festival.