NATIONAL PUBLIC HOUSING MUSEUM: A Chicago Building with Paradox and Promise
Todd Palmer, Associate Director and Curator, National Public Housing Museum, Chicago
In conversation with Richard Anderson and Professor Keengha Yamahtta-Taylor
Todd Palmer, NPHM’s Associate Director and Curator will reflect upon the organization’s engagement of multifaceted challenges around this building project – a cultural site of paradox and promise. Turning an affordable housing relic into a museum intervenes both physically and conceptually into practices of urban development and planning and also touches “place-making” discourses of heritage, civic identity and public space.
The talk invites dialogue with the panelists and attendees about what it means to activate a putatively defunct model of housing as an historic site from which to contest persistent narratives of abjection and failure associated with public housing policies, designs and populations. How do the museum’s building ambitions negotiate socio-economic and political forces to realize a cultural anchor in a context shaped past and present by real estate market constraints? Is it possible that creating this place for co-curation drawn from the lived experience and collective memory of public housing residents can significantly interrupt the civic fabric? How might it also contest normative histories and continuously inform who and what is included in imagining (and even building) the incomplete project of a “just city”?
On Chicago’s Near West Side, adjacent to Little Italy and the University of Illinois’ urban campus, a 3-story red brick courtyard building overlooks an expanse of vacant lots. 32 buildings known as the Jane Addams Homes once stood here -- only this one remains.
The building evidences Chicago’s signal role in the nation's experience with government intervention in the housing market, and the foundational interplay of economic, political and social forces. It is an artifact of New Deal-era urban renewal policies. It contrasts equally with its still-standing neighbors: now gentrified flats that would have been diagnosed as working class slums and “cleared” as demonstrations of the public good. Ironically, the projects that resulted from clearance were demolished in 2002, when Chicago piloted federal Hope VI policy -- vacated to make way for privately built housing that optimistically endeavored to integrate public housing residents into “mainstream society.”
A 1998 agreement forged during this period of “transformation” between HUD, the Chicago Housing Authority, historic preservation agencies and grassroots housing resident leaders negotiated a reprieve for this singular structure. It remained as a “monument” that might render visible these residents’ presence and assert their worth. This notion evolved into a museum, formally organized in 2007 to realize the building project and the vision of its advocacy-infused programming (now the “National Public Housing Museum”).