Faced with plans to tear down the projects where they were living, public housing residents in Chicago set out 16 years ago to commemorate their own diverse communities and others like them across the country. The resulting National Public Housing Museum has held exhibits addressing issues of race, class, and public policy at temporary sites since 2009, but construction of a permanent home will soon begin.
The effort involves rehabbing the last remaining building of the Jane Addams Homes, Chicago’s first federally funded (Works Projects Administration) public housing project—987 units in 32 buildings. Emulating the approach of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, the National Public Housing Museum will recreate the appearance of three apartments and tell the stories of their inhabitants: a Jewish family that moved into the Jane Addams Homes when the project opened in 1938, an Italian family that arrived in 1954, and an African-American family that came in 1962. Curators hope to add the narrative of a Puerto Rican family that lived in the project from the late 1970s until it closed in 2002.
“Public housing is and was a birthplace for some of the most famous and powerful people that we know,” says Keith Magee, director of the museum. “Whether that’s Lloyd Blankfein from Goldman Sachs or Jay-Z; whether that’s Barbra Streisand or Sonia Sotomayor. This is where they started.”
The first exhibits are scheduled to open next fall, with completion of the museum planned for 2015.