An Inside Out Experience

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With a deadline fast approaching, organizers of the National Public Housing Museum and Education Center are working hard to raise funds and generate support to make the museum a reality. But if one open house held earlier this spring is an indication, the museum already has the support of former and current residents of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA).

Museum officials held the event at 1322-24 W. Taylor St., the last building standing that was built in the 1930s as part of the now-demolished Jane Adams Homes, part of the ABLA Homes complex. Through a series of audio and visual installations in the vacant three-story building to be transformed into the museum, the many spectators went from room to room on the first and second floors to get a glimpse of how life was then and now for public housing residents.

They looked at exhibition photos and watched four short films of residents’ oral history accounts of everyday life, the promise of slum clearance, idealism and hope for better times, about taking a look back at changes during the past 50 years, and about the resilience of those facing down daily challenges. The films were shown on projection screens across worn out and peeling bare walls set up in different rooms of the vacant units.

Residents’ Views
If organizers raise the money they need, the museum will be the first cultural institution in the United States dedicated to American public housing. The museum will draw “on the power of place and memory to illuminate the resilience of poor and working class families of every race and ethnicity to realize the promise of America,” according to the organization’s brochure.

Many of the visitors Residents’ Journal spoke with during and after the April 17 event were elated and excited about the prospect that the building will be a home for the museum and center.

Delilah Smith, 34, a mother of four who was born and raised at ABLA and currently lives at the CHA’s redeveloped Roosevelt Square mixed-income site, said turning the historic building into a museum was an “excellent” idea.

“National pubic housing, that’s good. Just so people can know the history of public housing not just in Chicago, but all across the country. I think this is excellent. It brought me to tears up in there actually. Just looking at the exhibits, looking at the pictures and stuff and I actually did an oral history for them. So listening to myself talk and everybody else talk I’m like, ‘Oh wow.’

“I think that since this building is on Taylor Street, like a busy street that gets a lot of traffic and stuff and it’s in the right area,” Smith said. “I think it was good for them to choose this building.”

Smith, who believes people will come to the museum in the future out of interest and just plain curiosity, said at some point she would also bring her kids to the museum for a history lesson.
“They’ll be coming because it will be interesting for them to know how it was before they were born in the late ‘90s,” Smith said. “I think the kids will like it. My kids, they’ve never been in the Jane Addams before because it was closed. The thing that’s interesting about it is the history. The people that lived here and what their reflection on living in public housing was.”

Residents from other CHA public housing sites were also on the scene, including Dorothy Brown, who lives at the mixed-income community which replaced the Henry Horner Homes on the West Side.

Brown told RJ after viewing the film which depicted her oral history of life at Horner that the sneak preview of some of the things that will be in the museum almost brought her to tears.

“This choked me up just to be in here to see this,” Brown said. “It’s like me going to the Martin Luther King Memorial and seeing where he came from and what he had strived to do, and where we’re at today. And that’s what’s going on with this.

“I think it’s a good idea. It’s a good structure for people to understand where people came from, how they struggled to get to where they are today. I think this is a good thing and will probably enlighten them and the younger generations and make them better. We’re always going to have memories of the bad times when someone got shot and killed. That’s part of history. You can’t change that. But you can change what’s going on now to make it better. And this will help,” Brown said.

Museum Leaders
Sunny Fischer, the executive director of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and one of the founding board members for the museum, told RJ the importance of the museum is to make sure people understand the history of public and affordable housing.

“So that people understand exactly the history of public housing, why it was built, because people had this idea that we have to take care of people who need a hand….” Fischer said.

“Otherwise it just gets demolished. It gets wiped out. We don’t learn from the past and we repeat the mistakes of the past. So to house something that is as compelling as this would allow people to understand in a very deep level the importance of preserving that building, the history of that building, understand the public policies around it.

“And to be in a building that had stories of so many people so many lives, and the power of this place is something that everybody should experience, because you almost feel the people who lived there and you can feel the sorrows as well as the joys. You can feel their hopes and their dreams and you can feel what public housing was supposed to be when it was built back in 1938, and then you see what’s happened,” Fischer said.

She added that the new museum and center will be “modeled after the successful Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City and other historic sites of conscience.”

The museum has to raise $17 million over a three-year period and come up with $3.2 million dollars by the end of 2009. According to the museum’s brochure, the funds will come from philanthropic, corporate and public support.

Fischer added that the CHA would have no control of any aspect of the museum.

“This is completely independent of the CHA. What we have is site control. That means that we can use the building right now and that we’re responsible for the building. But we have to raise the money before they will turn it over to us full and clear,” she said.

While RJ was interviewing one of the participants outside the building, a man driving by yelled out of his car window, “Museum for the Ghetto.” Richard Cahan, a program officer at the Driehaus Foundation who volunteers for the museum and curated the exhibit, told RJ the man’s perspective “is the view of many people,” which is why the museum is important.

Cahan said the museum would make people aware of the importance of the residents’ stories and ideas, help people learn from “the past great expectations and great failures,” be an institution that’s learning from other cities, and foster talk among officials about public housing.

“We also need to have an institution that’s learning from other places, other cities. Why does (public housing) work in New York? Why doesn’t it work in San Francisco? What are they doing in Moscow and Buenos Aries?

“These are the same problems. It’s sheltering the poor,” Cahan said.

“I think everybody thinks about the idea of sheltering people who can’t afford a place and it is a people’s right. It is their right to have a home. And is there a limit to how much the government should do? All of these issues are decided in several courts and I think this museum will foster talk about public housing. It never came up in the campaign between McCain and Obama and we want that dialogue to start,” said Cahan.

Cahan said the museum officials would invite the new U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donavan to see the museum.

He added that museum has already gotten support from a lot of people and the nonprofit organization is now trying to get support from all over the country.

“We think Chicago is the perfect place for this because there are so many highs and so many lows. But ultimately, we think that this is something for the whole nation. That’s why it’s called the National Public Housing Museum,” he said.

The huge building will ultimately be filled with artifacts of public housing, and plans are to devote every room to a different decade. But there is also the possibility that the museum will include commercial space in front, Cahan said.

Keith L. Magee, the newly appointed executive director of the museum, told RJ later in the month that talk about establishment of the museum took place 10 years ago, but only took shape into a non-profit organization in 2006.

Magee added that the museum is expected to open in two more years.

“We hope for it to open by 2012 at the latest,” he said during an April 22 phone interview.

The event was made possible in part by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Illinois General Assembly. Other sponsors included the Woods Fund of Chicago, the Adler Planetarium, the Boeing Company and Bar Louie.

The museum founders secured the support of President Barack Obama at the time he was U.S. senator as well as Mayor Richard M. Daley, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), former Chicago Public Schools chief and now U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-IL), Ald. Walter Burnett (27), state Sen. Rickey R. Hendon (D-Chicago), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, now executive chairman of City View, Michael Kelly, president of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA), Floyd O. May, managing director of the National Organization of African American in Housing (NOAH), John W. McCarter Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Field Museum, Gary T. Johnson, president of the Chicago History Museum, Shirley R. Madigan, chairman of the Illinois Arts Council, Lonnie G. Bunch, director of Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Charles R. Middleton, president of Roosevelt University.

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