When Chicago launched a massive plan in 2000 to overhaul all public housing in the city–knocking down high-rises like Cabrini-Green and slowly rebuilding new communities–residents resisted. They didn’t want to lose their homes, or the tight-knit communities that had formed over decades. But as the plan moved forward, they rallied around a new goal: to save one building to tell their stories and preserve local history.
The National Public Housing Museum will open in 2019 in Little Italy on the city’s Near West Side, in a building that was part of a New Deal development built in the 1930s as the first federal housing project in Chicago.
“This is the dream of public housing residents to preserve their stories and to preserve the space,” says Robert Smith, associate director of the museum organization. “The demolition of spaces, of homes, of communities, instigated the activism around saving a particular space for the stories.”
The museum has been in planning since 2007 and was inspired, in part, by the Tenement Museum in New York, which recreates public housing experiences from an earlier time, and offered mentorship to the NPHM team. Inside the building in Chicago, visitors will see inside three apartments restored based on oral histories from three families who lived there at different points in time. The Medor family, who moved into the building when it was new, were a Russian-Jewish family who lost family members in Europe and came to Chicago to start over. Another apartment will memorialize the experience of the Rizzi family, Italian-Americans headed by a single mother who relied on the public housing of the time as a safe place for her children. A third apartment tells the story of the Hatch family, African-Americans who moved into the development in the 1960s.
In galleries in other parts of the building, the museum will explore current debates around affordable housing and issues including gentrification, violence in cities, and the persistence of racial segregation. “I think a lot of museums are agnostic on politics, or apolitical,” says Smith. “There’s an idea that museums can’t advocate in the policy realm, and we just don’t think that’s true.” The new museum aims to bring together artists and scholars with the people most affected by housing policy, and host discussions that can help shape the future of that policy.
Until the museum opens in its new space–a long process that involved zoning changes and dealing with local politics, and also will involve restoring a space that has been abandoned for years and decomposing in harsh Chicago weather–the organization has been hosting a series of events elsewhere.
“It’s a museum in the streets,” Smith says. “It’s a museum that has found space in the cracks and crevices of the city to tell stories.” A current exhibition, Housing as a Human Right: Social Construction, focuses on the Jane Addams Homes, the development that included the building where the new museum will be launched. It brings visitors back to the years after the Great Depression, when public housing–along with social security, libraries and bridges, and funding for the arts–became a priority for the federal government.
“That sort of sense of the public good from the highest level is something that I think we’ve lost,” says Smith, pointing to Roosevelt’s proposed second bill of rights, which included the right of every family to a decent home. “He understands that you can’t guarantee the first bill of rights, our political rights, without guaranteeing economic rights.”
Smith hopes that the museum will help visitors rethink public housing–both its original promise, and how it is defined. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is also public housing; so, in a sense, is every house owned by people who claim a tax break on their mortgage interest. The mortgage interest deduction cost the U.S. $77 billion in 2016; far more than went to “public housing,” Section 8 vouchers, or other programs for low-income Americans.
The organization also plans to work with local entrepreneurs in a small business incubator designed for public housing residents. A curriculum will teach about the history of entrepreneurship in the community–including successful co-ops, like a general store in the 1940s that redistributed union-level wages to resident members.
The museum store will itself be a cooperative owned and operated by public housing residents, serving as a living model for visitors to experience.
“We think that public housing residents, and poor and working-class people who have been on the margins, who tried to make ends meet in the informal economy actually have a lot to teach the rest of us about ways to think the economy anew,” Smith says. “We want to help facilitate those conversations and disseminate the knowledge that public housing residents have always wielded to a broader audience.”