The National Public Housing Museum is pluralizing the program’s mythic narrative
By Anjulie Rao
When Lisa Yun Lee brought some early visitors to the former Jane Addams Homes in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood—the future site of the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM)—the site was derelict, vacant since the low-rise public housing development was shuttered in 2002. The painted walls had peeled, leaving cracks and paint chips in the rooms. “People would look at it and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so beautiful… you should just preserve it like this and then have people be able to walk through it.’” Said Lee, the executive director of the NPHM. “And you’re like, it’s crumbling buildings…”
It’s true, she went on to say, that there is beauty in ruinous places; the aesthetics of paint chips and decay attracts the kinds of urban explorers seeking evidence of life in places now abandoned. But that wasn’t what Lee was going for. “For us, well, that’s a story not about public housing,” she told me. “That’s a story of organized abandonment of it.”
The NPHM was conceptualized in the wake of the Plan for Transformation, a program launched in 1996 by then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Daley had decided that the only way to deal with entrenched, racialized poverty was to dismantle the structures that housed it, bringing about what Lee calls the largest destruction of affordable housing in U.S. history—eighteen thousand units, home to more than eight thousand families. Under the Plan, public housing would be replaced with a variety of new and rehabbed buildings and guaranteed right of return to displaced residents displaced.
For many Americans, particularly in the Midwest, the vision of public housing is colored not by the history of housing access, but by this narrative of decay and destruction. Stories of broken elevators, rotting animal corpses in basements, burst pipes, and overheated apartments due to broken radiators and boilers are common tropes, recounted in the dozens of books and articles on public housing in Chicago. These stories, alongside images of half-standing buildings, have colored widespread public perception and altered the very fabric of housing, both in Chicago and across the country.
But standing outside of this narrative is Lee and her team at the National Public Housing Museum. Sprouting from the ruins of those towers, the NPHM is focused on unraveling the single narrative of public housing’s mythic failures, and has set out to tell the stories of the lives lived in and around public housing’s walls—not its organized abandonment.
The origins of public housing are complicated, but several architects and housing specialists I spoke to for this story, including Lee herself, hearken back to How the Other Half Lives, a seminal 1880 work of photojournalism by Jacob Riis, which depicted the lives of poor people living in New York City slums. Both Lee and Paul Williams, a housing expert and Fellow at the Jain Family Institute in New York, said modern public housing began in earnest with the Works Progress Administration and the Housing Acts of 1937, ‘39, and ‘49, which asserted housing as a basic necessity for all people.
According to Williams, the WPA and housing acts created new, affordable housing developments that were not income restricted, but rather, were open to working-class families. “What you had was, of course, plenty of low income people moving in because they were low cost units. But you also had lower middle class and middle class people moving in just because it was a nice new modern apartment,” explained Williams. “A lot of people were very happy with the program, but the real estate industry and conservative Democrats basically said they can’t have the public sector competing with [private sectors]. This is bad for business.”
Income and racial restrictions were applied, Williams continued, thus marginalized poor, especially Black families into public housing. So you had, on the one hand, evolving ideologies about the right to housing, alongside (racialized) stigmatization of those who occupied it, all of which culminated in the concept of ‘blight.’ Andrew Herscher, Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan, describes the history of blight in his article, “Black and Blight” from the book Race and Modern Architecture. Blight, he writes, is an unnatural process of racialization, marginalization, dispossession, and eventual destruction—all of which serves the ultimate purpose of driving poorer people (“the underemployed, unemployed, and those working outside of the capitalist system”) out of desirable urban spaces.
The Plan for Transformation may have been born in 1996, but it was preceded by the Reagan era, which birthed racist rhetoric like the famous “welfare queen,” which created broader suspicion of welfare recipients. Those cultural tropes coincided with new programs like HOPE VI—an early 1990s federal program that removed ‘concentrated poverty’ in favor of mixed-income developments— and a sixty-two percent reduction in federal spending on public housing between 1992 and 2020. “You had twenty years of [building] conditions deteriorating, as funding stagnated, as Reagan basically limited the capital funds that went to public housing, then the conditions kind of started to stagnate, and there was not the maintenance and upkeep that was required,” said Williams.
Amid such conditions, the Plan for Transformation’s call for blight removal (read: demolition) was heralded with optimism. “It seemed like the priority was just to get the towers down as an image, just tear them down,” said Catherine Baker, architect and former principal at Landon Bone Baker Architects, an architecture firm responsible for several of the affordable housing developments that replaced public housing. “Not really worry about the people, you know, just get them down and have this blank slate where you can start to recreate things on the site.” Baker remembers the flurry of public gatherings to watch the buildings implode, like a heroic event that would yield possibility.
But a ‘blank slate’ couldn’t erase the ingrained, racist cultural tropes popularized during the Reagan era. Nor could it eliminate the narrative of decay that preceded public housing’s demolition in Chicago. Instead, we went to work establishing limitations to housing welfare, making it exceedingly difficult to accomplish what New Deal-era ideologies provided. Instead of ‘housing as a human right,’ it became a war against ‘concentrated poverty.’
Leaders didn’t just dismantle public housing itself, but also the policies that made public housing possible. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 issued tax credits to private developers to cover the cost of investing in affordable housing construction, alleviating the ‘prohibitively expensive’ cost of construction, along with the cost of subsidizing rent, said Williams. Those tax credits, called Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), yield deeply inefficient processes that make building affordable housing complicated, inefficient, and limited the time that units would remain affordable.
What ended up happening, said Williams, was the rise of nonprofit Community Development Corporations that, while often in touch with the needs of low-income housing residents, lacked the specialized workforce required to acquire those tax credits, requiring additional expenditures on underwriters and syndicators, lessening the value of each credit–and the overall investment in affordable housing.
Soon after the Plan for Transformation, a group of former public housing residents, led by Deverra Beverly former chair of the ABLA Homes resident council, came up with the idea to reframe the narrative by creating a museum about public housing, and to save one public housing building to host it. But they needed help, she said, and turned to the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience—a network of museums and historic sites that “connects past struggles to today’s movements for human rights,” according to its website.
It wasn’t until the mid-aughts that the museum gained traction and support, particularly from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, and it formally incorporated in 2007. (Lee was the Director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum at that time, and joined as the first Board Member.) But it still lacks a permanent indoor home. The NPHM has acquired the last remaining Jane Addams Homes building in Chicago’s Tri-Taylor neighborhood, but the building requires extensive rehabilitation to be ready for occupancy; eventually, in addition to exhibition spaces, recording studios, and contemporary art, it will also include fifteen units of mixed-income housing, part of a collaboration with the Chicago Housing Authority.
In the meantime, the museum staff press on with an ambitious mission, one that, said Lee, wants to go “upstream.” “Going back in time and asking, ‘how did it get this way?’ [The museum] needed to be an active site of resistance against the forces that are trying to dismantle public housing.” In its current rented space in River West, just outside of the downtown Loop, NPHM has launched smaller-scale exhibitions and lecture programs; the Jane Addams building primarily hosts temporary, outdoor exhibitions and installations, including projections, murals, public programs, and more.
But instead of attempting to condense or clarify “how we got here” by making us all students of political or economic histories, their exhibitions and archiving projects are further complicating this history by focusing on the stories and experiences of the residents themselves. Their work transcends the idea of memorializing public housing—its buildings and artifacts—lost to decay and demolition. Rather than building memorials to public housing, they are building monuments—as Sue Mobley, Director of Research at MonumentLab once told me, “Memorials remember something that was lost; monuments assert the right to shape the future.” And, like monuments, the stories are always vastly more complicated.
In other words, the NPHM is confronting the decisions, effects, and lingering residues of political actions and narratives and has embarked on public projects that combine economic engagement models, first-person storytelling, and conversations about Chicago’s history of housing and dispossession. “In order to understand public housing, it becomes a kind of entangled web…it is a story about public health, public education, about public safety,” said Lee. “I think the biggest myth about public housing is that it’s about housing.”
Among the stories of ‘entrenched poverty’ at former public housing sites was a history of cooperation. The Rockwood-Maplewood Cooperative had a community-owned gas station; Robert Taylor Homes provided a community vegetable garden. And at the Altgeld Gardens public housing development on Chicago’s far South Side, residents launched the Altgeld Gardens Consumer Cooperative store.
Unlike traditional retail, co-ops provide consumers an option to own a stake in a company. For Black residents of Altgeld Gardens it supplied groceries, newspapers, records, and ice cream; and, it signified an opportunity for community investment. “Altgeld will not be plagued, as are other Negro communities, with absentee owners who siphon off the profits from Negro people and live elsewhere,” reads a 1944 Chicago Defender article. “Profits in the Co-op at Altgeld will remain with the people there and increase their purchasing power.”
These co-operative economies were lost with demolition, and the National Public Housing Museum has tapped into the ethos of cooperation through their Entrepreneurship Hub: a program that supports past public housing residents and others who would typically lack the infrastructure, such as legal help, marketing, and financing, to launch a small business. The museum store, which is currently online but will open a brick-and-mortar at the Jane Addams site, will also function as a co-op where profits will be shared with public housing residents. The museum has also partnered with Taylor Street Farms nearby the museum’s permanent site in remembrance of public housing’s past community gardens.
Much of the museum’s excavation work has revolved around building an oral history archive. “The shortest distance between two people is a story,” said Tiff Beatty, NPHM Program Director of Arts, Culture and Public Policy, quoting John Berger. “The power of the story can be much more than a debate: you can come with your opinion, I’ll come with mine. It’s very rare that we’re going to change each other’s opinion. But with the story, you can find a connection, a commonality or a difference that can be intriguing, that can make you want to learn more.”
NPHM’s Oral History Corps trains volunteers to record the stories of current and past public housing residents. Their Story Circles bring together multiple residents during which the storytellers speak to a specific theme—a recent conversation included eight longtime and past Chicago Public Housing residents talking about holidays in the projects, spanning from 1949 to the present day. Each speaker co-owns their story; they are allowed to edit or rearrange the contents as they see fit. These oral history projects “build civic intimacy,” Beatty told me. “How can we, as neighbors, who just want to know more about each other be curious about each other as opposed to afraid or isolated, and how can we just create more connection?”
These stories and conversations, frankly, aren’t always positive. Issues such as divisions between public housing residents and surrounding neighborhoods, crime, and neglect, are addressed by many of the storytellers in the Story Circles. This, said Lee, is intentional; when the museum was first established, much of the public commentary they received was critical of their vision to commemorate public housing. “I remember talking to people who said, ‘Oh, you’re building a temple to unwed mothers,’ you know, this kind of sensibility that there’s just one story. So there was an effort to sort of produce a counter narrative, which was all celebratory,” she said. “And that slowly became a realization that we have to actually be much, much more honest.”
The storytellers aren’t refuting the narratives of decay. Instead, they are able to speak to how they experienced building neglect, how residents mitigated or navigated it, and how it changed their understanding of community care. Similarly, the Entrepreneurship Hub doesn’t ‘celebrate’ the entrepreneurship of public housing residents, it also speaks to why new models of wealth-building are necessary, particularly after years of exclusion from infrastructures that support small businesses.
Connecting people through storytelling can adjust the hearts and minds of a select few museum visitors, but infusing their critique into larger contexts and precedents could move public housing’s historic failures from an event that requires a memorial, to a monument for future progress. Rather than replacing the narrative of decay with another monolith, it’s about making it about many other, related, events, stories, histories, and events.
NPHM’s most recent podcast initiative, Legally Stolen, is an example of expanding NPHM’s focus past public housing itself. Unlike their many other programs and exhibitions, the three-episode podcast illuminates contract selling: a predatory real estate practice from the 1950s and ‘60s that targeted Black families, ‘selling’ them homes on a contract requiring large down payments and monthly installments at high interest rates. Under these contracts, families would own the homes after the contract was paid and conditions were met, but contract owners would instead cancel their contracts and evict the residents without any equity accrued.
The podcast is a collaboration with artist Tonika Lewis Johnson, whose recent project Inequity for Sale spotlit private contract homes on Chicago’s South Side. Johnson located individual homes, photographed each, and then installed visual markers in front that include the date of the contract sale, the victim’s name, and the address. But the podcast, as a supplementary component to Johnson’s installations, begins to unravel the connections between public housing’s failures and private homeownership.
“The story is visual. And Tonika is exposing that in her taking photos of these homes, of her putting land markers in front of these homes to draw attention to abandoned homes and vacant lots,” said Beatty. “And for me, that is just as much of a tragic sort of image of destruction as these bulldozers and these large high rise buildings being demolished. It’s just slower. It’s quieter. It’s, in some ways, a lot more sinister, because it is buried in the legalese of these contracts.” These practices contributed to devalued homes, many of which were later demolished, only after being labeled ‘blighted.’
Beatty noted that, in doing interviews for the podcast, the connections weren’t just visual. In one case, she spoke with a victim of contract selling who left the Robert Taylor Homes in search of a better life for her kids, only to have her child killed on his way home from work. “Those are some of the kinds of things that we want to bring into the narrative that has been just about drugs and violence and bad schools and all of these narratives that are really just the symptoms of policies that were the same policies that impacted public housing communities,” she said.
Drawing connections, both explicit and nuanced, between federal policies and attitudes that influence the actions of local municipalities—and the ways those actions are felt and experienced by individuals and communities—demonstrates how public housing’s “failure” can be traced to larger networks of failed political decision-making. The ultimate goal is to not only change hearts and minds by collapsing the distance between two people through storytelling, but to regenerate the attitudes that characterized the era of public housing’s birth: a sympathetic public.
In her 2015 book Last Project Standing: Civics and Sympathy in Post-Welfare Chicago, anthropologist and author Catherine Fennel documented the Henry Horner Homes—a now-demolished public housing development on Chicago’s west side—and the residents who lived with and among its decaying structures and systems. The book unfolds as an ethnographic study of welfare and the limits of care and protection provided by welfare infrastructures. Critical to her analysis is the notion of sympathy.
Fennel explains there are limitations to rudimentary sympathy, which is based on “identical conditions in two or more individuals of the same, or different species,” citing psychologist Théodule Ribot. But as sympathy evolves, it becomes possible for people with different backgrounds or conditions to relate to the emotional and visceral effects that bring them together toward a society of care. Public housing (and the welfare state in general) is one expression of that sort of sympathetic public.
But those policies that replaced public housing throughout the 1980s and ‘90s prioritized a lesser-evolved sympathy: No longer would we be required to feel solidarity or connection with those who are socially or economically stratified from an idealized American “middle class.” Instead, the conditions created by later-twentieth-century federal housing policies—time-limited subsidization and ‘mixed-income communities’ that barely scratch the surface of need for affordable housing—rely on public housing’s singular narrative of decay and failure. And, unlike the conditions which sparked the New Deal, our collective fascination with that narrative has become a scaffold for our commitment to perpetuating that less-evolved sympathy.
The museum’s work in reviving economic solidarity, in acknowledging the difficult and ugly side of public housing’s divestment and decay, and in communicating connections between public housing and the related rigged systems of housing exploitation exposes the nuances of prescribed failure. It might not mark the return to ‘housing is a human right,’ but it could help the public better understand how our perceptions of housing are incomplete. It’s not optimism, nor is it particularly reparative—it’s pluralizing. Picking up the pieces of something broken, holding them up to light, and building something different. Maybe it won’t regenerate a sympathetic public, but all it takes is one connection to enter the realm of a broader cultural imaginary that, writes Fennel, “spans physical and social distances.”
When Lee thought through what to do about the derelict Jane Addams building, soon to become the permanent home for NPHM, she asked herself: What could be done with that cracked paint? Instead of letting it remain like some post-industrial artifact of public housing’s decay, Lee decided to work with artists Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyafus to salvage the paint chips and create “Thresholds,”—a collaged entryway featuring those paint chips, relics of organized abandonment, collecting remnants of a place of the past to build something wholly new. ■
Anjulie Rao is a journalist and critic covering the built environment.
Cover image by Chris Harvey.
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