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How It Works

Recovering Citizens in Post-Welfare Philadelphia

How It Works

Recovering Citizens in Post-Welfare Philadelphia

Of the some sixty thousand vacant properties in Philadelphia, half of them are abandoned row houses. Taken as a whole, these derelict homes symbolize the city’s plight in the wake of industrial decline. But a closer look reveals a remarkable new phenomenon—street-level entrepreneurs repurposing hundreds of these empty houses as facilities for recovering addicts and alcoholics. How It Works is a compelling study of this recovery house movement and its place in the new urban order wrought by welfare reform.

To find out what life is like in these recovery houses, Robert P. Fairbanks II goes inside one particular home in the Kensington neighborhood. Operating without a license and unregulated by any government office, the recovery house provides food, shelter, company, and a bracing self-help philosophy to addicts in an area saturated with drugs and devastated by poverty. From this starkly vivid close-up, Fairbanks widens his lens to reveal the intricate relationships the recovery houses have forged with public welfare, the formal drug treatment sector, criminal justice institutions, and the local government.


“In this powerful and provocative book, Robert Fairbanks delivers an incisive, street-level analysis of the brutal biopolitics of neoliberal poverty management. This remarkable journey through the recovery house movement leads us through the fraught regulatory spaces where devolutionary neglect meets do-it-yourself governmentality, where survival meets self-help, and where urban informality meets institutional reinvention. How It Works sets a new standard for marrying ethnographic depth, social relevance, and robust, creative theorizing.”

Jamie Peck, University of British Columbia

“This ethnography of subsistence and street-level entrepreneurship in the informal economy of addiction recovery reveals the unintended effects of the post-welfare state’s parasitical management of the ravages of spatially contained poverty. Fairbanks takes us to the crux of the unintended depoliticizing effects of the entanglement of neoliberal statecraft with self-craft. He artfully documents the unplanned interface between a safety net shot full of holes and workfare, carceral repression, regulatory incompetence, low-wage labor, inner-city decay, incipient gentrification, and the struggle for individual worthiness and sober survival in one of America’s poorest deindustrialized big cities.”--Philippe Bourgois, coauthor of Righteous Dopefiend and author of In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio

Philippe Bourgois

Table of Contents



1   The Making of AHAD

2   “How It Works”:

       The Basic Architecture of the Kensington Recovery House System  

3.   The Art of Building Programmatic Space

4.   The Persistent Failures of the Recovery House System:

      Low-Wage Labor, Relapse, and “the Wreckage of the Past”

5.   Unruly Spaces of Managed Persistence

6.   Statecraft/Self-Craft:

      Policy Transfer in the Recovery House Movement



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