The animal sculpture garden outside the Jane Addams Homes. Addams was vacated in 2002; the only building still standing will soon house the National Public Housing Museum.

Public Eye

An interview with Todd Palmer, interim director of the National Public Housing Museum

The animal sculpture garden outside the Jane Addams Homes. Addams was vacated in 2002; the only building still standing will soon house the National Public Housing Museum.
The animal sculpture garden outside the Jane Addams Homes. Addams was vacated in 2002; the only building still standing will soon house the National Public Housing Museum.

Since the 1990s, over eighty public housing high-rises in Chicago have been razed to the ground. In the aftermath of these events, the country’s first National Public Housing Museum is in the works, at the last remaining building of the demolished Jane Addams Homes on the West Side. The museum’s planners hope to commemorate the untold stories of these displaced communities and address the future of public housing. Todd Palmer, the museum’s interim director, has been involved in the making of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Over the past year, Palmer and museum staff have been leading discussions about public housing throughout the Chicago area to gain citywide support for the museum’s opening mission. “Our goal,” he says, “is to create a more active and engaged public.”

How does the National Museum of Public Housing fit into the history of public housing? 

The NMPH started out as a resident initiative in the late nineties, at a time when there were new ideas coming from President Clinton and Washington about how public housing should look. One of the big ideas was that they wanted to have public housing communities integrated with the larger communities. The way that took place in Chicago was that public housing high-rises became targeted for demolitions. The plan was to replace segregated communities with mixed-income communities, and that was known as the Plan for Transformation. The history of the museum comes out of that policy change.

But it also comes out of the fact that these communities always had their own leadership. They had resident leaders who were elected by fellow residents. In our case, the leadership of ABLA—the Addams, Brooks, Loomis, and Abbott projects—was negotiating. The government couldn’t just come in and throw people out. So they did, in fact, restore the Brooks Homes . Then they were looking at the Addams homes, and realized that these are among the first public housing buildings built in the country. They were called demonstration projects, which meant they were almost prototypes under the New Deal. So they recognized the historical value of these homes as buildings. They were built by notable Chicago architects Holabird & Root, who were also the architects of the Board of Trade. The leaders said this is not only architecturally significant, but it’s also our lives that are lived here, our families, our memories, and we want you to figure out a way to remind people that public housing was home.

Also, as the museum’s staff started doing the research they realized that the housing wasn’t always African-American. The building that we have—the first families to live there were Jewish, Mexican, and Russian and a whole range of ethnicities. They really resemble the West Side, which was a mosaic of culture then. And so they saved the building and now the museum is around to tell several different kinds of stories. It’s around to tell the story of the people who lived there more recently and it’s there to tell the story of the origin of public housing and what happened across that history.

This is a museum of national public housing. Is the focus on Chicago? 

The idea is that we are in Chicago, so we want to use Chicago as the case study. And we will be in a real building where you can tell the stories of real people that lived in that building. You can also tell the stories of people that lived down the street, and still live down the street in the Brooks Homes. You can tell the stories of the people who lived in Cabrini-Green, which is a block away from our new office; you can tell stories of people who live in Altgeld Gardens, which is where President Obama got his start. That is Chicago. And what we’d like to do is create a network, and through social media and other means collect histories of public housing. We can start telling a national story because people will be surprised to learn that there are national figures like Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court, who grew up in public housing in New York City. The founder of Starbucks (Howard Schultz) and Kenny Rogers grew up in public housing, as well as Jay-Z, and Lupe Fiasco from Chicago. So really, it’s national, but starting in Chicago. How can we learn from Chicago? Many other cities really did look to Chicago. Atlanta is a good example, they followed a similar path; and New York City, which has had the most resilient public housing that most resembles the idealism of the early days. And so Chicago is a very relevant example on which to base a conversation about public housing.

Is the museum taking a stance in this conversation about public housing? 

We aren’t taking a stance. A museum by definition can’t take a stance. You would lose your non-profit status. There is a museum of the Holocaust and there’s the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York. Those are museums that raise consciousness about things that people should be thinking about. I think the museum is the right place to hear that debate about public housing. There are people who might think that the transformation of public housing as it occurred in Chicago is the right way to do it. There are people who say there should not be public housing in the first place, period. In fact, those opinions were part of how public housing got developed. If there weren’t those other voices, public housing might look different today. There has always been a debate.

But what happens is that most people in their leisure time go to an art museum or maybe the symphony. We think that just as people are now using their leisure time to learn about the Holocaust and tenements, there could also be a place where we think about our neighbors who are poor and the housing crisis that’s striking many people of all economic groups, and how public housing fits into that future of our country.

What can we expect the museum to look like? 

It will be a mix of experiences. The core of it is modeled on the Tenement Museum, which is an experience of domestic life, literal apartments. We’ve been doing oral histories of three different families across three generations for the project. We’re doing the work now to figure out how their memories fit into the history of policy and design. If a Jewish family that kept kosher moved into the building when it was new, and in a never-cooked-in-before kitchen, that was very important. The problem of units and design comes out. In the fifties you have the changing social policies with the political decisions to divert money from cities to suburbs, and so even though in the fifties the building is still more than fifty percent white, and an Italian family is living there, you get a sense that it is very different from the thirties when there was still a hopefulness in public housing during the Great Depression. During the fifties when people started moving to suburbs, there were still white people who were poor, and they remember feeling that there was stigma attached to living in public housing that didn’t exist in the thirties because of different times, different history. And then in the sixties and seventies, the black families living there were very happy to be there because there weren’t a lot of options for working class families. This is a family that’s headed by a preacher. He’s not a poor man by any means. But he can’t move to the suburbs because the suburbs are by law for whites. There’s redlining  and there are forces that don’t allow you to move up. Public housing is a step up for this family. Eventually, they do move out.

So that’s the core experience. But then we’ll have all the things we do around the city now, like exhibits about music or architecture, or a conversation about the future of public housing. We’ll have spaces in this building for those things to happen and then our offices will be there too. So it’s kind of just like coming home. We will make an announcement for the time frame of the construction in the spring. We are in the midst of processing with the CHA (Chicago Housing Authority), which still owns the property. We’ve done about fifty percent of the fundraising we need. We have a little over three million dollars, and we are negotiating how we can start putting that money to work, building up at least a part of it so we can start giving apartment tours. Once they agree to transfer the property, then the clock starts ticking for construction, and when it will actually open depends on when those things occur. We’re hopeful that it will actually be in 2014. If that were to happen, it would certainly be toward the end of 2014.

What are some of the challenges in creating this museum? 

I think not everyone gets it. When you say “public housing museum,” people say, “I know there are art museums and maybe history museums, but why a museum of a history that seems in the mind’s eye to be about something that’s bad?” So I think there’s a challenge in getting people to see what we see before there’s a museum and to challenge the preconceptions when there’s nothing there yet. So we try to do our programming and put up sample exhibits to get our story out there, and I think we have met the challenge. But it takes some convincing to get people to see our vision, and I think we are well on our way.

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