If there's anything that perfectly captures the transformation of public housing from physical buildings and lived experience into a cultural commodity, it's a small plexiglass box mounted on the wall of the National Public Housing Museum's latest exhibit, "Housing As a Human Right: Social Construction," on display at Archeworks through January 8. Inside the box there's a pile of mint-green paint chips, blotched with brown stains and cracked like a dehydrated lake bed. For decades, the Chicago Housing Authority painted the interiors of many project apartments in this shade of green, lead-based paint. The paint in the box came from the west-side Jane Addams Homes, and the presentation captures both the history of the material's use and a tradition of resistance against it. The wall behind the box, the floor below it, and the opposite wall are all painted in the same green, but photographs and an audio installation facing the encased relic tell uplifting stories of project residents repainting their apartments in bright colors, finding ways to personalize the institutional feel of their homes, and organizing for environmental justice.
At the opening reception last Thursday, a mostly white and young crowd of visitors lingered in front of the encased paint chips and perused a handful of other installations while snacking on artisanal cheeses and sipping craft beers or wine served in mason jars. The show is organized around themes like public health, public safety, and entrepreneurship, featuring artifacts, snippets of residents' oral histories, excerpts from letters, and archival photographs. Suitcases filled with with candy boxes that were used as props in PJ Paparelli's play The Project(s) are positioned next to photos of a resident-run co-op and laundry in Altgeld Gardens and a few words on the economic isolation of public housing communities. A deteriorating medicine cabinet recovered from the ABLA Homes hangs next to descriptions of public health and hygiene programs initiated in the projects on one side, and, on the other, a copy of Steve Bogira's 1987 Reader story about an ABLA resident being murdered by intruders who came in through her bathroom mirror. A hooded, blue jacket with "CHA Tenant Patrol" lettered in yellow on the back is displayed next to pictures of tenant-patrol members and a blurb explaining the emergence of tenant-led community policing in the wake of abandonment and predation by the Chicago Police Department.
The goal, it seems, is to get the audience to think about the ways that public housing and its residents' initiatives both shaped and responded to the wider world. In each installation the curators juxtapose dark histories of discrimination and dispossession with hopeful stories of resistance and creativity. The show offers a glimpse of the kind of museum experience the NPHM, under the direction of Lisa Lee, might offer its visitors when it opens at the end of 2018.
"We really wanted to have the opportunity to test some of the exhibition strategies and to see how the stories that we have been so passionately in love with for the last ten years play in the public field," Lee said at the opening, emphasizing that the vision for the museum—conceived more than a decade ago by public housing residents facing the erasure of their communities—is still a work in progress.
Lee imagines the future of NPHM as not just a repository of artifacts but an "activist museum" engaged in contemporary social-justice struggles—for the building to be not just a site memorializing public housing residents of the past but employing current residents, and for its institutional voice to not just be used for reciting history but also critiquing current housing policy. More immediately, she added, there are plans to bring busloads of CHA residents to see this show and to further engage with residents in future curatorial efforts.
"Part of the organizing effort of the last couple of months is the staff recognizing that in order for us to do this work responsibly we have to actually really become a part of the [resident] community," she says.
But since this particular exhibit is part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the curators also had to consider that many visitors may not have any knowledge of or connection to public housing. "It's for people who, of course, grew up in public housing and really care about this history," Lee says, "but also for people who are just thinking about how important the built environment and architecture and design are in people's lives, and thinking about how the commitment to a certain kind of equity in space actually might create a different kind of society for all of us."
"Housing As a Human Right" makes a valiant effort to draw attention to the inequities of the past without succumbing to disaster pornography or an excessively photogenic presentation of ruin. At every installation there's an attempt to make a "yes, and . . . " statement, underscoring that public housing could be the setting for both the worst and the best of times.
And yet, even as the histories of residents' lives are recovered and reclaimed, the complexities of the past are inevitably flattened, condensed into digestible and relatable narratives. As one watches attendees stroll through the exhibit—some, who lived in the projects themselves, erupting in nostalgic reminiscences, and others who are too young to have really known anything about public housing reading the labels with curiosity—one gets a discomforting feeling that something is missing. Perhaps it's because the show is careful not to point any fingers at the audience itself.
Sure, there are plenty of callouts: of the bureaucratic ineptitude of the CHA, the egregious behavior of police, the persistent use of lead paint (which was still in some apartments through the 1990s), the city's lack of investment in education and infrastructure around the projects, the Plan for Transformation. But somehow none of that implicates viewers, which is a shame. Because much of what went into creating the difficult conditions for which public housing became notorious—and, by extension, residents' myriad ways of coping with and overcoming these difficulties—has to do with the white, the wealthy, the homeowners, the people who didn't want to live next to black people or have their kids share their classrooms, the real estate speculators and racist banks, and, more recently, the young professionals who now want to live close to downtown.
The history of public housing, however unfamiliar to some, is the history of America. It reveals the scaffolding on which this country built its white middle class, and the collateral damage borne by African-American families while their white counterparts thrived during the 20th century. And if most of the people who visit this show are destined to be of a privileged milieu, then the NPHM misses an opportunity to demonstrate how they're entangled in what happened. If the tenant-patrol jacket teaches us something about the mechanics of policing and surveillance within public housing, then it could also be a vehicle to clarify how and why residents were seen as a population requiring surveillance—and on whose behalf this surveillance was performed.
As the NPHM gets closer to its grand opening, there's no question that the people who've shepherded its growth are wholeheartedly devoted to creating a cultural institution that CHA residents residents past and present can be proud of and call their own. The museum also wants to make it relevant and engaging to a wide audience. But to be an agent of change, the NPHM will need to continue puzzling through the complicated terrain of how to uplift without sanitizing, how to not just educate but implicate its visitors, and how to redeem artifacts of suffering in the service of present-day social transformation. Otherwise, the lead paint in the plexiglass box will have poisoned generations of children for naught.