Free In / Free From

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]

This issue of AREA Chicago is centered around a common theme: everybody’s got money issues. Throughout the publication’s pages, contributors tell the stories of the roles that various individuals, collectives, groups and institutions play in Chicago’s economy. Our city’s inhabitants have not been spared by the recession: from Hyde Park to Rogers Park, everyone has been impacted, or knows someone who has been impacted, by the economic instability of late. How does money shape the experiences of the city’s residents?

One of the ways in which money issues are addressed is through the integration of free resources, culture and services into one’s life. This warrants a necessary inquisition:


What is free?

In defining “free”, it is important to recognize the distinction/relationship between money and economy. If we think of the economy as a system created by people to facilitate the production, exchange, and consumption of goods and services, then money acts as a social mediator within this system, a tool for representing the value of goods and services. Superficially, then, “free” can be used quite literally to describe material goods or services that are provided at no cost to the consumer. However, this understanding of the sort of free-based economy that Chicagoans engage in is limited at best. This model of a charity economy only offers resources free in the context of a larger capitalist system. The consumer spends no money, but the production process is unaltered from the profit model. No systematic change is proposed, but rather, the ills of inequity addressed through the provision of free access to needs and wants. While in a concrete sense, resources may be free, they often carry heavy hidden costs: what is in the consumer’s best interest, politically, ethically, etc. may be subordinated by intentions to perpetuate the institutionalized inequity of the capitalist class system or to serve state, institutional or corporate interests. By no means, however, do we suggest that these models are entirely flawed or without merit. They are often guided by an honorable sentiment: that access to money (or lack thereof) should not restrict one’s ability to thrive within an economy. We seek to evaluate these models for the purposes they serve, and the limitations that they cannot overcome.

Other alternatives seek to move beyond this merely literal treatment of what it means to create a fair economy, beyond the provision of no-cost resources, beyond simply being free in a larger capitalist system. These models propose that individuals actively construct an economy that is free from the limitations that a capitalist system presents. Of course, this conception of the economy cannot be fully realized separate from the larger entity of the market economy from which they emerge. However, a key departure from the earlier charity model is the recognition that structural change is necessary for a truly equitable economic system to exist. While charity economies fix the problems within the box, the solidarity economy moves beyond the box altogether, to varying degrees, founded in various practices.

The production and consumption of “free” represents a broad, seemingly paradoxical cultural community of individuals, collectives, groups and institutions seeking to provide access to freeness in our city, with a wide range of intentions and scopes. This analysis of “free Chicago,” then, does not represent a universal experience, nor does it aim to position itself as a comprehensive guide. Rather, this project seeks to explore a variety of frameworks for economic justice, and to offer a glimpse into the radically distinct realms in which this free city exists and endures. It suggests that we start at the tangible and move to the imagined: from charity to solidarity, from free in to free from.

What is a charity economy?

The charity economy is our conceptualization of an exchange system in which goods, services or experiences are provided without cost by an institution or organization to residents. A fair portion of the charity economy is state-sponsored, including city, state and federal programs. However, it is important to recognize alternative forms of charity economies beyond government, including corporate and faith-based initiatives. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters may be the hallmarks of the charity economy, but they are by no means representative of the system as a whole. We seek to expand this limited understanding of charity beyond simply the provisions of goods, such as food and shelter, to include the free access to land, culture, media and education. In fact, one may encounter and engage in multiple manifestations of the charity economy on a daily basis without even recognizing them as such: from the Chicago Reader one reads on the morning commute, to the Chicago Park District bench upon which one eats lunch, to the Thursday evening one spends at the Art Institute without cost. The charity economy negotiates money as the supreme social mediator, offering alternative ways of access to the wants and needs of everyday life in Chicago.

What is a solidarity economy?

Another way to think of the economy is as a composite of the diverse ways that human communities create livelihoods through our relationships with each other, with other living beings, and with the earth itself. If the economic framework that currently dominates our society effectively valued these relationships, the need for “charity” would not exist. People who participate in the solidarity economy prioritize social and ecological well-being over profit. One principle that the solidarity economy recognizes that the market economy does not is that the best solutions come from our collective knowledge and experience. Within the solidarity economy, democratic participation is valued over hierarchical decision-making; practice is valued over theory. Capital, currency or cost may not be eliminated, but they are not viewed as the problem: as social mediators, they only represent values within the larger economy. While capitalism emphasizes the necessity of estranged wage labor, hierarchical structure, excess and profit – the solidarity economy instead places greater emphasis on valuing work, resources, and time equitably in ways that are free from exploitation of people and resources.

From Charity to Solidarity: Mapping Chicago’s Economies

With a consciousness of the extraordinarily diverse methods and guiding ideologies Chicagoans—from City Hall to Mess Hall—engage in creating exchange systems, we have evaluated a selection of the various projects and initiatives that identify as providers of freeness, either in a literal or figurative sense. Through this dialogue with our fellow Chicagoans, we have developed a free in/free from diagram to represent various frameworks for exchange and development of money, resources, knowledge, and services in Chicago. The organizations profiled are not a comprehensive representation of free Chicago, but rather embody a sample of the depth and breadth of models that work to support individuals and communities in working towards creating a Chicago that embraces a more just economics. We have purposely chosen to position charity and solidarity economies together, for while their scope and ideological impulses may differ, they each contribute to a city freer from economic inequity.

Profiles positioned near the map’s center generally work within existing systems (like capitalism), while profiles that are further from the center implement initiatives that are free from those systems (like participatory economies). Each of these initiatives, however, contributes to a conversation concerning our money: who creates it, how it is dispersed, how it is exchanged and what it is for. Moving from charity to solidarity requires one to reconfigure one’s role, from passive to active participant, in defining what economy should look like.


How are these economies organized?

To recognize the distinctions between charity and solidarity, it is useful to break the economy into into smaller categories. We have chosen what we see as eight dominant models of exchange within the city: food, land, housing, social services, finance, media/education, arts and waste. On the back of our diagram, you can find a more extensive explanation of what each of these groupings means, and examples of further initiatives that fall under these models. By no means all-inclusive, this selection provides a wider snapshot of the city’s free movement, recognizing the innumerable amount of individuals and organizations taking part in envisioning and providing a free Chicago to residents. Its limitations should be seen as a nod to the expanding nature of free in/from economies developing in our city: we encourage you to contribute your own experiences and resources to our selected list.


Neily and Ashley


Food: how we provide for our physical nourishment and nutrition

(see: Chicago Food Depository, Food Not Bombs, Vital Bridges, Inspiration Cafe, 61st Street Farmers Market, Growing Power, the Urban Farm Project, Woodlawn Buying Club, Pembroke Farmers Cooperative, Gingko Gardens, Voku, Growing Home, True Nature Foods)

Generally, within both charity and solidarity economies, food is viewed as a human right rather than a privilege. However, communities vary greatly in how their visions of food production and consumption fit within the contexts of economic, environmental and social justice.

How do we create economies where people are nourished?


Land: how we think of physical space and its value

(see North Park Village Nature Center, Crystal Garden, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Land Connection, Garfield Park Conservatory Chicago Park District, Chicago Conservation Corps, Chicago Community Land Trust, Lincoln Park Conservatory and Garden)

Land, within capitalist terms, is usually related to its profitability and ownership, whether monetary, social, cultural or otherwise. The urban space of Chicago has experienced rapid transformation, guided largely by forces of deindustrialization, privatization, and gentrification since the 1970’s.

How is the space of our city currently being utilized?


Housing: the spaces we inhabit

(see Sarah’s Circle, Harold Washington Unity Cooperative, REST Shelter, Qumbya Cooperative, Catholic Worker Communities, Stone Soup Cooperative, Pratt-Ashland Cooperative, The Roost Cooperative, HUB Cooperative, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Keystone Ecological Center, Chicago Housing Authority, Lakeside CDC, Weiser House, Ball Hall, The Lowercase Collective, Amate House)

In a city of almost three million people, the basic need for shelter is not to be taken lightly. As foreclosure and gentrification become increasingly significant byproducts of capitalism, the constantly growing need for permanently affordable housing and services for persons who experience homelessness is addressed through tools ranging from public housing to faith-based initiatives to cooperatives. These spaces take shape in wildly diverse forms: a bed and a roof, a safe space to care for one’s daily needs, intentional spaces that encompass the meaning of home.

What types of spaces are Chicagoans calling home?


Social Services: resources that support community health

(see Rumble Arts Center, Chicago Critical Mass, Bike Winter, Chicago Department of Public Health, Broadway Youth Center, Stroger Hospital, Howard Brown Health Center, Midwest College of Oriental Medicine, Chicago Women’s Health Center, Chicago Bicycle Library, Pomegranate Health Collective, Chicago Federation of Labor, Blocks Together, Southwest Youth Collaborative, Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture)

An essential element of our economy that is often overlooked by economists is taking care of one another. The massive number of non-profit and faith-based organizations that exist (and struggle) to address these issues demonstrates that our economic system does not prioritize production and access to care.

How can we ensure that value is placed on the health, safety, and well-being of every member of our community?


Finance: increasing literacy of capital resource management

(see City of Chicago Financial Literacy Resources, Chicago Community Loan Fund, Crossroads Fund, Caballeros de San Juan Credit Union, Northside Community Federal Credit Union, Alliant Credit Union)

“Free money” is never as sweet as it sounds: we saw (and continue to see) this phenomenon in the context of the mortgage crisis. In a culture where finances are often considered a personal and even taboo topic, the lack of open dialogue around money issues reinforces power structures. This is exemplified by the extent to which institutional service providers obscure and/or perpetuate financial burdens like debt, tax policy and unjust labor systems.

Who has access to money and the knowledge/tools to manage it?


Media/Education: the production and consumption of information

(see Chicago Free Press, Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, Conscious Choice, Hoy, New City, AREA Chicago, Platypus Affiliated Society, BeyondMedia Education, ChicagoOtra, Chicago Public Libraries, Erie House, El Centro de Educación y Cultura, Instituto del Progreso Latino, Chicago Underground Library, Lichen Spiritual Archives, Chicagoist, Temporary Services)

Shared information inherently passes through filters: language, point of view, invested interest, and mode of communication all affect the messages we send and receive. However, our interaction with information is hardly uniform; learning communities take on many shapes, from informal to formal, hierarchical to collective. As constant consumers and producers of information, we can create opportunities for ourselves to participate in knowledge creation.

Where do media and education intersect with economic, social and political justice?


Arts: expression and provide access to others’ expression

(see Batey Urbano, Theater Oobleck, Castaway Collective, Speak Easy, Mess Hall, Alive One, the Newberry Library, Women and Children First, the Mutiny, Movies in the Parks, Cafe Mestizo Open Mic, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago Cultural Center, City Gallery, Quennect 4 Gallery, Spudnik Press, InCUBATE)

While the arts are romanticized as being somehow removed from money and economics, it is crucial to note the intricate links between culture and capital. The disproportion between the high value placed on end product and low value placed on creative process is one constantly reproduced through the veneration of the “starving artist” motif, where sacrifice and integrity are one in the same. In terms of creating just economies, it is necessary to ensure that the value placed on artists’ livelihoods reflects the worth of their labor as an essential contribution to the economy as a whole.

How do we support artists in securing the ability to express free from economic estrangement?


Waste: how excess and waste are managed

(see Freecycle Network, Free Market, FreeGeek Chicago, Rebuilding Exchange, Chicago Recycling Coalition, Green Homes for Chicago, Chicago Free Store)

While nature has well-balanced systems in place for cycles of creation and destruction, humans have not followed suit, at least not in cities like Chicago, which produces an extraordinary amount of waste in the form of trash, food, and pollution. The efforts that we make to conserve and reuse can provide resources to communities for free, and reduce dependence on destructive production practices.

How can we reduce our waste/excess to protect our environmental commons?


Building a Directory to Free Chicago

As a work in progress, we invite you to send us the alternative economies in which you participate to build a more comprehensive directory of Free Chicago. If you are interested in contributing to or learning more about the solidarity economy project, contact

For more information on Notes for a People’s Atlas of Chicago see:


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