PostHeaderIcon Public Housing Success Story

Architecture

Public Housing MuseumFew Chicagoans living today can remember when public housing was not a tragic failure.  Chicago’s infamous Robert Taylor Homes along with the Cabrini-Green and Lawndale neighborhoods were duplicated in every major metropolis from Boston and New York to Los Angeles.  Fortunately, most such human warehouses have been demolished or undergone major renovation.

In Chicago, the CHA’s “Plan for Transformation is the nation’s largest redevelopment initiative. Part of that redevelopment is occurring along Taylor Street’s Jane Addams Homes, built in 1938.  The area has been cleared save for one building at 1322 W. Taylor which some visionary Chicagoans want to convert into a National Public Housing Museum.

Why build a museum to one of the ‘50s and ‘60s worst public policy failures?  Precisely to honor the many working-class families who called public housing home over its 70 year history and for whom it was the steppingstone into the middle class.

Currently, in the front lobby of the Merchandise Mart, you can see a replica of a typical 1950s public housing apartment on display. The exhibit’s exterior covering depicts familiar brick exteriors and boarded-up windows of CHA buildings. Inside one finds fascinating artifacts of the period—an RCA Victor TV console, Raggedy Ann dolls and metal roller skates, an enamel kitchen table with dinner plates displaying the stories of one-time residents. Former residents from Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans and Los Angeles share their memories on recipe cards.

What has been forgotten are the close-knit families and many successful graduates of public housing: President Jimmy Carter, jazz artist Ramsey Lewis, comedian Bill Cosby, Diana Ross, Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks and Lloyd Blankfein, head of financial giant, Goldman Sachs. All rose up many rungs on the success ladder.

Keith Magee, the museum’s executive director and the board are hard at work to raise the $17 million cost for turning the dream into reality. Boeing, the Chicago Community Trust, the Reva and David Logan Foundation along with many other

local businesses and foundations are behind the effort to open the museum in 2012.   The National Endowment for the Humanities has made a grant to the museum to collect oral histories of public housing residents nationwide, past and present.

Magee calls the projected building a “museum of conscience” whose mission is to “open public discourse on public housing and challenge stereotypes” such as the  perception that such places contain little else but “violence, gang bangers and welfare mothers.”

At the opening reception earlier this week, Marjorie Craig Benton said, “If all people know about public housing is the tragic side, the exhibit will teach that there’s more to the story.”

The Mart exhibition is up through May 27Go and see history come alive. I think you will be moved.

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