I attended the open house for the National Museum of Public Housing on Saturday, and I’m so glad I did. The new executive was introduced, and there were thoughtful photography exhibits on display by the residents of the Robert Taylor Homes and David Schalliol.
A number of individuals affiliated with the museum spoke at the event, and what they had to say about the vision for this organization resonated deeply with me. Board member Crystal Palmer spoke to the importance home in public housing and showing all sides of this history - the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think it does have such a specific, negative association in our society, and it will be crucial to tell a balanced story to change perceptions of this important part of our collective history. Curator and associate director Todd Palmer emphasized the idea of civic belonging and telling the stories of those who often haven’t had a voice. Historic homes have largely reflected the histories of the wealthy, and this museum will provide an important break from that trend. He also talked about the history of the project, and how those who originally campaigned to save the last standing Jane Addams Homes envisioned the space as a monument. Newly appointed director Charles Leeks discussed his personal history with public housing, with housing politics in his work in Lawndale, and with the need to focus on public good. He reflected on histories, both those of everyday Chicagoans and those of notable figures who lived on the west side, erased over time.
These speakers, in addition to those current public housing tenants who attended and told their own stories at the event, drove home the importance of documenting and sharing this broad, incredibly important part of our urban history.
I first started learning about the history of public housing in Chicago after working a freelance photography gig that took me all over the city photographing real estate. I was curious about the diversity of properties from neighborhood to neighborhood, and what the story was behind what remained of the high-rise projects (Cabrini Green), especially when contrasted with the glistening new construction down the road. After five years of research, I feel strongly that there needs to be more opportunity for the broad range of experiences in public housing to be discussed, the full story needs to be told. With that, a large and often silenced portion of the population needs to be given a voice equal to that of all other groups in our society. Needless to say, I am excited about this museum.