Episode 37

37. The National Public Housing Museum with Robert J. Smith III

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About this Episode

It would have been much easier to build the National Public Housing Museum from scratch instead of retrofitting it in the last remaining building of the Jane Addams Homes, the first public housing development in Chicago. But doing so would have undermined one of the core principles of the museum: that place has power. 

Robert J. Smith III, the associate director of the National Public Housing Museum, describes the mission of the museum as preserving, promoting, and propelling housing as a human right. In this epsiode, he describes the history of the Jane Addams Homes, how national public policy connects to the lives of public housing residents, and some ongoing decisions about what the museum will look like when it opens next year.

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Topics Discussed:

00:00: Intro
00:14: Robert J. Smith III
00:24: The Mission of the Museum
01:00: Preserving a Building of the Jane Addams Homes
02:18: The Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation
03:05: Deverra Beverly
04:41: Beyond Preservation
06:25: Docent-Guided Tours
07:00: Apartment Tours
9:50: Demand the Impossible
11:05: Housing as a Human Right


Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 37. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Robert Smith: Good afternoon. My name is Robert Smith and I am associate director of the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago. So the mission of the museum is to preserve, promote and propel Housing is a human right, and we do that through exhibitions, public programs and by bringing arts and culture together with public policy to create, You know, we hope for creative and lasting solutions of housing in security.

The National Public Housing Museum, which is not yet open, was founded in 2007 as the result of years of organizing by public housing residents. The original intent was to save the last remaining building of the Jane Adams Homes, a public housing development in Chicago, from demolition and preserve it as a museum.

Robert Smith: So the Holmes is one of the first developments of public housing built in Chicago. They were opened in 1938 as part of the Public Works Administration, and the goal of the Public Works Administration was to basically spend money to stimulate the economy. Public housing, construction. Have you had a benefit? Of course? Housing, poor and working class families who were suffering in a really serious housing crisis that gripped the country and the genetics homes sort of contrary to the typical understanding of public housing is mostly served on white, working class families. Eventually, by the time it closes, it houses nearly all African American families. And really, you know, the story of race could be charted in the ways that the Jane Adams homes change over time, from a place that house mostly white immigrants to a place that houses mostly the black urban poor and the Janus Holmes is made up of rage building 52 rowhouses, all of those air demolished. But for 13 22 West Taylor Street, which is the building man, will be the National Public Housing Museum.

The Jane Adams Holmes was targeted for demolition by the Chicago Housing Authorities Plan for Transformation

Robert Smith: n Chicago under the second Mayor, Daley Richard J. Daley, the conventional wisdom of the state and the philanthropic sector. The private sector was to launch something called the plane for transformation, which resulted in the demolition of all of the quote unquote notorious public housing developments on 25,000 units of public housing came down. 25,000 units of public housing were supposed to be created. So much of the plane for transformation happened without the involvement. It’s your involvement of public housing residents and you know it all goes back to the public housing residents from Saul’s S O Mr Vera, Beverly Waas, a public housing residents in the opera homes of which the Jane Adams Holmes is one. And she was one of the leading activists and organizers in her community. And when the Jane Adams Holmes came down, she was one of the leading voices that one of the buildings ought to be preserved as a museum. So I would say the seat is really you know, Mr Vera, Beverly and the group of activists, mostly African Americans, mostly African American women who are really instrumental in fighting to preserve the building, who sort of organized allies and foundations and academics to do the work to preserve the building and say that

The fact that they chose to preserve this one building this one address that used to be part of this particular development serves the whole message of the museum. I am the primacy of place.

It’s frankly, would have been much cheaper. To build a museum from scratch on the open land that once was the Jane Adam’s homes, then to go through the trouble of saving the last remaining building, you know, getting it of its asbestos of It’s like paint on building an institution inside of it. But for us, you know, the power of places so important that was really important for folks to, you know, walk through the look and feel.

Since the initial idea, the museum has evolved and this still evolving. You can tell by the mission statement that the point is not just preservation. So how does the museum figure out what to focus on and how to present to the world?

Robert Smith: You know, this is a museum founded by public housing residents on Dove course, public housing residents. You ought to have a say in the way their stories air recorded and shared. So our board, about half of the people on the board either currently or have lived in public housing right now, I would say about three of 20 live in public housing right now, it’s really important to us both as a organization that’s representing and sharing the stories and objects of public housing. Residents Teo be co creators and collaborators with folks in the community, but also because they could pull this accountable off and they get to tell us what’s up. They can tell us when we, you know, make a wrong turn, but also for the connect us and the ambassadors to an incredibly diverse, enormous community where there are some kind of key institutions. But once of all the buildings are so many of the buildings came down. People are really dispersed, you know, to the four corners of the Earth and in terms of the the museum itself. You know, Mike, my boss exactly of Director Lisa Lee always says, You know, we’re building the most exciting cultural institution in America, and I think she’s totally right. Of course, there’s still some decisions are still making about what the museum will look like when you open next year. One key decision is that all of her tours will be landed by Justin’s, who are current or past public housing residents. You know, we’ve made a big commitment. Teo threw in a community benefits agreement, and you’re all over conversation actions with our public housing residents, stakeholders. Your museum is a museum of objects, but also importantly abusing. The story’s visitors will encounter the stories of public housing residents across the country on Meet Their Particular. Doesn’t you really want the apartment? Worse?

The apartment tours will feature three furnished apartments made toe look like they would have looked for three specific families that lived in the complex at different times. These are the Toro It’s Family, a Russian Jewish family that moved into the complex in 1938. The reason. Family on Italian American family that lived there in the 1950s and 1960s, when the neighborhood was becoming heavily Italian. And then the Hatch family, an African American family that lived there in the 1970s.

Robert Smith: and in his apartment tours, a meal encounter, objects, reproductions and vignettes that really connect the national public policies that shaped that shaped the lives of the public housing residents on everything from the Housing Act of 1937 to the policies, like the plan for transformation that brought the buildings down here in Chako eso you’ll you’ll injure thee turn. It’s the door apartment who are one of the first residents of the Jane out of this homes. And you know you’ll hear the story about the excitement of the tournament’s family to be living in apartment that had never been, you know, changed. It’d buy pork eso so the Target’s family never needed to go through the kind of exhaustive cleansing rituals, a certain kind of Judaism who requires to keep a kosher kitchen going through the hatch, merely apartment and think and talk about the kind of relationship did of the black church to the black community in Chicago and elsewhere. You know the incredible role at musicians played in public housing and dangle the incredible musicians who emerged from public housing and John out. And they all had a distinct sense of style. They all transmitted their culture through the food, they to have a decorated into the light of Jesus poster in one apartment to the missus on another to the Christmas tree, and another, you know, these were the ways that people dilts, you build a life that was both remarkable. And every day and once you could have passed through the three apartment exhibitions that connects you. National public policy, chew the lived experience of public housing residents. You’ll you’ll hear the rest of the story were, and then you’ll move into the final galleries upstairs, where you will experience and learn about. You know, what happened to the seventies eighties, the nineties, the two thousands. You know what happens at the urban crisis in the urban crisis? What happens through deindustrialization through the retreat of the state from from public services and what happens when the building’s come town. And importantly, you’ll end your museum tour experience in a room that we’re not calling demand the impossible. You know, there have been lots of court, including possible policies. You know, we might have thought about being our work day. It’s one time impossible, and we’re interested in introducing our museum audience tippling policies that might seem equally impossible today. They’re worth considering our worth putting out into a civic space and debating, you know, things like housing first policies that provide Holmes first to do home people on Dollhouse services to be wrapped around folks instead of criminalizing homeless, where things like a universal basic income or other models of ownership on DH enterprise like the worker cooperative like co operative housing like the Community Land Trust, you know different ways of thinking about the economy and knew the public housing residents have, frankly been innovating for a really long time.

Robert says that the National Public Housing Museum is tentatively scheduled to open in September of 2019 with a firmer opening date to be finalized soon, he and his team see museums as the right medium.

Robert Smith: Oh, yeah, I don’t think it’s that controversial to demand or argue that housing is a human right? Of course, there are so many policy approaches to that kind of question, And for me, the museum is a kind of civic space not to debate if housing is a human right, but to figure out how to get there. Oh, and we hope, as an institution that can bring people together to not necessarily agree, but to engage in a civic dialogue and, frankly, you know, with the news media as polarized as it is, um, with the published here such that it is today so fragmented. We think the museums have a particular potential, and we believe your responsibility to be places of convening to help solve the problems that are facing our society. And I think it’s really important, especially as a museum that is a national public housing museum to do that for the country, but also the one that decided in Chicago, which is where so many of the issues of segregation of racism reached their height. You know, reach their kind of ugliest conclusion. It’s really important for us to be an open door to convenience conversations in this city.