CHICAGO – Last week, the National Public Housing Museum announced that it has received a $750,000 capital gift from the Alphawood Foundation, which will allow the organization to move closer to rehabilitating the future museum site in Chicago’s Little Italy. The site, one of the buildings of the Jane Addams Homes on Taylor Street, now stands empty and shuttered.
“We’re able to ask the CHA to transfer the property to us in a 99-year ground lease,” said NPHM Interim Director Todd Palmer, who anticipates that the first four apartments in the building will be rehabilitated and opened to the public in about a year. Alphawood’s gift puts the museum at $2.6 million raised out of a total $6.2 million needed to fully complete the project.
On Thursday, March 27 Palmer and NPHM board members, along with current and former public housing residents, Chicago Housing Authority representatives and guests gathered at the Black Ensemble Theater for a reception to celebrate the gift. A performance of “Chicago’s Golden Soul,” followed as an additional fundraiser. The show features the music of artists who emerged from America’s public housing projects, like Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Billy Stewart, Etta James and many others.
The Black Ensemble Theater’s founder and former Cabrini-Green resident Jackie Taylor said she was proud to host the event. “This museum is so important because these are our stories, this is where we grew up, and we don’t want our memories to go away and our history to go away.”
The origins of the NPHM, which today exists only as a “virtual museum,” stretch back seven years, related Sunny Fischer, chair of its board of directors, who was herself reared in public housing in the Bronx in the 1950s. CHA Commissioner and ABLA Homes resident leader Deverra Beverly enlisted Fischer’s help to get the museum off the ground. “Her dream was to figure out how to, in the face of all of the public housing being demolished…preserve the memories, how to preserve the fact that they lived here.”
The Jane Addmas Homes, built in the late 1930s, were one of the first public housing projects in the country. Eventually they became part of the sprawling ABLA public housing neighborhood on the Near West Side. Most of that public housing has been razed over the past 13 years as part of Chicago’s Plan for Transformation.
The idea for structuring the museum is inspired by the Tenement House Museum in New York City, which recreates several apartments in the way that immigrants in the garment district would have inhabited them. The first four rehabilitated units in the building on Taylor Street will recreate apartments of Italian, Jewish, Mexican- and African-American families who lived there throughout eight consecutive decades from 1938 to 2002. These domestic spaces will be a platform from which visitors will be invited to explore historical, social, economic and political topics surrounding urban life in America.
One of the goals of the NPHM is to get people talking and thinking about the idea of “housing as a human right,” Palmer explained. This notion was attractive to the Alphawood Foundation.
“Our foundation has as one of its core values social justice and equality and opportunity, and that’s the story of public housing — leveling the playing field and giving people a tool that they need to live full and complete lives in the city,” said Alphawood Foundation Executive Director Jim McDonough. The museum’s mission “fits very well with Alphawood’s values.”
Also in attendance that evening to celebrate this step forward in opening the nation’s first public housing museum were notable figures like Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, historian and civil rights fighter Dr. Timuel Black, (whose wife Zenobia Jonson-Black is the vice chair of the NPHM), singer Jerry Butler’s sister and Executive Director of Woodlawn East Community And Neighbors Inc. Mattie Butler, and Grammy-nominated singer Kim Stratton. Stratton, whose second passion is cooking, catered the reception.
“I got discovered in LeClaire Courts and wound up with a national recording contract,” said Stratton. Many other talented people she knew in public housing “just didn’t get a break.” Though her life in LeClaire in the 1990s included the kind of scary experiences that tend to be associated with “the projects,” Stratton says she will never forget the community. “It taught me how to respect my humble beginnings and to never take anything God’s given me, any talents or gifts for granted.”
Since the recession, it has been difficult to raise the necessary funds to get the museum off the ground. But, Palmer says that Alphawood’s gift and the ability to move forward with the acquisition of the site will act as a catalyst to attract donors who have been waiting on the sidelines. He expects the full $6.3 million will come in quickly once the first four units open and allow people to see what the museum is all about.
In its fully realized form, the National Public Housing Museum will also include a library, research center, theater space, and public gathering area.