This article offers an analysis of a “sympathetic public” cohering around the U.S. welfare state's wreckage that is tuned to the material dimensions of emplacement. It does this through an exploration of efforts to bring a national public housing museum to Chicago. Museum supporters mobilized the properties of ruined public housing to summon affinities and identifications with the U.S. poor and to reconfigure public reckoning about poverty in the United States. The public examined here is an anticipated one. Conceptually, I depart from text-based understandings of publics and publicity. I follow how museum supporters sought to curate encounters with ruined housing in ways that would socialize beholders into the attentiveness necessary to reflect and act properly on poverty. The “sympathetic” dimensions of this anticipated public operate on two levels. First, future visitors’ identifications with the struggles of bygone residents would combat “unsympathetic” representations of U.S. poor. Second, visceral contact with a place once inhabited by bygone residents would render contagious the perspectives, values, and practices they used to navigate social inequality and state-mediated neglect. The anticipated public then also anticipates the kind of citizenry capable of managing social protection at a “postwelfare” moment.
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