Public Housing Museum to open in Chicago in 2017

A new museum on the site of the former Jane Addams Homes is set to open next year:

You can see the towers of the Loop looming to the east, and right on the block you can see new restaurants that draw Chicago diners looking for upscale burgers and barbecue. You can gaze down the block toward Mario’s Italian Lemonade, a summertime fixture in the Little Italy neighborhood for decades. And right next door to the west, you can see the empty lot where the impressive heating plant for these projects, the Jane Addams Homes, once stood. The lot is now used for the overflow of cars that bring patrons to the restaurants.

But this, organizers say, is part of what makes the site so potent for the museum, which aims to replicate the successes of New York’s Tenement Museum, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and other “museums of conscience” the world over…

“Certainly a museum dedicated to public housing, people have questions about what does that mean,” said Brad White, associate director of Chicago’s Alphawood Foundation, which has pledged $750,000 to help start construction. “But race, income disparity, inequality are things that are actually important to the public these days.”…

Indeed, a core story, told with guidance by docents from the community, will be to trace the Addams homes from the white Jewish Medor family in the late 1930s, when the development opened, to the 1970s, when the African-American Hatch family moved out.

On the one hand, this story needs to be told, particularly since many of the larger high-rise projects are no longer standing and public housing fades from the memory of residents and the city. Additionally, it can directly address issues of race and class that have marked Chicago from the beginning and continue to influence social life.

On the other hand, how popular might such a museum be? The federal government was ambivalent about public housing to start as efforts picked up steam during the 1930s and 1940s. The city of Chicago placed the majority of the large complexes in already poor areas and practiced segregated placement of families. Both government bodies worked to remove large-scale public housing starting in the 1990s; some of the more valuable land has been redeveloped – see the former Cabrini-Green site – while little has been done with other land – such as at the Robert Taylor Homes.

I’ll be curious to see the museum itself as well as how it does.

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