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The National Public Housing Museum’s long journey home

After 20 years of battling for its building, the nascent institution’s most significant challenges lie ahead.

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The museum’s future home, 1322 W. Taylor, on the Near West Side, was one of the first public housing buildings in Chicago. - MAYA DUKMASOVA
  • Maya Dukmasova
  • The museum’s future home, 1322 W. Taylor, on the Near West Side, was one of the first public housing buildings in Chicago.

When the National Public Housing Museum finally opens next year in a three-story brick building at 1322 W. Taylor—the last remnant of Chicago's oldest federal housing project, the Jane Addams Homes—it will be the first cultural institution in the country devoted to chronicling and analyzing America's attempts to house its people. Over the last 20 years, the idea for the museum has evolved into an ambitious plan that includes historic reconstructions of public housing apartments, a policy research center, and an entrepreneurial hub, along with programming that bridges social justice struggles past and present. But it all began with the dream of one woman, Deverra Beverly, who wanted to ensure her community wouldn't be forgotten.

If any of the 7,000 public housing residents living in the Near West Side's ABLA Homes in the 1980s and '90s needed anything, from a job to a Thanksgiving turkey to a plumbing fix, Beverly was the person to see. A diminutive woman who wore bright colors and gold necklaces monogrammed with the letter D, Beverly was part alderman and part ward boss. Less bombastic than pragmatic, she was the long-tenured president of the Local Advisory Council, the elected resident leadership group for the four public housing projects that made up ABLA—the Jane Addams Homes, Robert Brooks Homes, Loomis Courts, and Grace Abbott Homes. While every project has an LAC, which serves as the voice of a public housing community before the Chicago Housing Authority, ABLA's was particularly strong due to Beverly's pull with city leaders and her keen ability to procure scarce resources from the cash-strapped, disorganized CHA. She was on good terms with local aldermen—who in 1994 christened the section of Loomis running alongside the ABLA community center Honorary Deverra Beverly Way—and with Mayor Richard M. Daley.

On any given day she could be found at her desk in the LAC office, the air thick with menthol cigarette smoke, the space stacked with boxes of T-shirts for community fun days, bottles of water, and food for residents donated by the Salvation Army. Beverly had been a fixture at ABLA from the time her parents moved there in the 1940s. Over the years she'd experienced the racial animus of the development's neighbors in Little Italy and had seen the public housing community transition from a family-friendly paradise into a stigmatized ghetto. Despite the hardships, she raised six kids there, and juggled her LAC responsibilities with work in the city's Department of Human Services before retiring in 1997 and devoting herself entirely to "my residents," as she liked to say.

By that time the neighborhood all around ABLA was rapidly gentrifying, and the new base of affluent homeowners didn't see public housing as an asset. As early as 1994, well-to-do residents were calling on the CHA to demolish the projects. One community organizer from this camp told the Sun-Times that the projects needed to go because of "random, violent crimes committed by some of the residents." To this Beverly responded that most of the crime they too were victims of was perpetrated by people from outside the neighborhood who were taking advantage of the deteriorating physical condition of their buildings.

More than a third of the roughly 3,600 units that composed the ABLA homes were vacant. There were persistent maintenance problems. The heating sometimes was out for months, even in the winter. Like other public housing developments around the city, ABLA had trouble with gangs and drug dealing. They were neglected by public services from trash collection to mail delivery while at the same time being aggressively policed. As discussions and meetings about demolition and redevelopment on the ABLA site became more frequent, Beverly lobbied to make sure residents' voices weren't totally sidelined.

"She was the person who fought for everything," says Mary Baggett, the current president of the LAC, which these days represents the Brooks Homes row houses—the only remaining part of ABLA. "She was the one who stood up at these meetings and spoke loudly and proudly for us."

Longtime ABLA leader Deverra Beverly originated the idea of the museum to preserve public housing residents’ histories. The animal statues by Edgar Miller are being restored and will be returned to the building’s courtyard. - KEITH HALE/SUN-TIMES
  • Keith Hale/Sun-Times
  • Longtime ABLA leader Deverra Beverly originated the idea of the museum to preserve public housing residents’ histories. The animal statues by Edgar Miller are being restored and will be returned to the building’s courtyard.

In 1998 Mayor Daley announced a $430 million makeover of ABLA that was in line with the federal government's preference for abandoning the high-rise buildings widely referred to by critics as "warehouses for the poor" in favor of new-urbanist mixed-income communities. The ABLA redevelopment plan, in addition to the ongoing rehab of the Brooks Homes, included the demolition of some 2,700 public housing units in the mid-rise and high-rise buildings, and the creation of almost 3,000 new mixed-income homes as well as a revamped community center. Units that would be lost in the neighborhood were promised elsewhere in the city.

Beverly ultimately backed the plan, particularly the idea that ABLA residents could remain in the neighborhood but shed the indignities and stigma of the deteriorating project landscape. "We don't want [the new homes] perceived as public housing," she told the Sun-Times in September 1998. "We want it to be a mixed-income community."

At the same time, ABLA's leader knew that such a redevelopment would risk the erasure of the community in ways more than physical. The demolition of the project buildings, she well understood, endangered the memory and history of public housing residents. And so, before publicly giving her blessing to the ABLA redevelopment, she secured a legal agreement with the CHA that guaranteed that an "interpretive exhibit" devoted to public housing would be part of the future site. Her dream was to see some kind of museum memorializing her community in the ABLA neighborhood, to make sure, as she'd often put it over the years, that no one would ever forget "we were here."

As most of Chicago's projects, including ABLA, were leveled without replacement and their communities scattered and vouchered into anonymity, the undefined interpretive exhibit developed into the National Public Housing Museum. What began as Beverly's personal dream became a nonprofit organization with major backing from some of the country's most influential philanthropists. Ironically, its biggest challenge has been securing a home.

Beverly's lobbying in the early 2000s helped save one building in the Addams Homes complex from demolition in the interest of its being repurposed for a future museum. But NPHM organizers have weathered years of political, financial, and bureaucratic setbacks—from uncooperative CHA leadership to the philanthropic drought brought on by the recession—that kept them from claiming the site. Since the last of the residents moved out of the 37,000-square-foot walk-up on the corner of Taylor and Ada Streets 15 years ago, the structure has stood empty and deteriorating.

Beverly wouldn't live to see her dream of the museum realized; after prolonged illness, she passed away in 2013 at the age of 79. But in May, the NPHM entered into negotiations over a 99-year lease with the CHA. Construction on the site is set to begin this summer, and organizers project the museum to open by the end of 2018.

The last two decades of struggle for the building were a boon to the NPHM in one respect—staff and board members have had ample time to refine their intentions for the museum and think through its potential impact. The passing years have also created ever higher stakes for the fledgling institution, as public housing in America slips further into historical memory. How it will manage to be a representative of poor people's stories and a platform for their voices without co-opting, tokenizing, or excluding them is the most significant problem its leaders still face.

The Taylor Street side of the National Public Housing Museum building will be fitted with a large window intended to be a visual reference to the way demolitions of public housing buildings reveal intimate, interior views of people's apartments. - LANDON BONE BAKER ARCHITECTS
  • Landon Bone Baker Architects
  • The Taylor Street side of the National Public Housing Museum building will be fitted with a large window intended to be a visual reference to the way demolitions of public housing buildings reveal intimate, interior views of people's apartments.

The Jane Addams Homes were designed in the 1930s by a team of architects that included John Holabird of Holabird & Root fame. Although the museum's Taylor Street building has good bones, its guts are in disarray. For a couple of years after it was vacated in 2002, it served as a conduit for heating pipes from the Addams Homes power house just north of the building to the remaining ABLA structures. Steam corroded everything made of metal that hadn't been illegally salvaged by scrappers. Squatters took up residence in the building, and the rooms of the old apartments are filled with debris—appliances, bathtubs, piles of bricks. Windows that hadn't been solidly boarded up let in rain, plants, and animals.

One recent afternoon, the museum's executive director, Lisa Lee, a bubbly 48-year-old, deftly navigated the dark, dilapidated building. The self-described cultural activist was previously the director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, where she led the push to acknowledge Addams's queer identity and made the institution's resources and spaces available to an array of groups engaged in contemporary social justice struggles. Maneuvering through jagged holes in the walls and up flights of semi-obstructed stairs, she outlined the museum that she envisions will emerge from the wreckage.

"I actually like the ruinous aesthetic," she says from behind a flashlight beam, explaining that the NPHM might preserve some elements of "poetic ruin" in the apartments. "Ruin somehow gives you a sense of historic time—it was good and then something happened to it. And there's definitely a part of the museum which has to be committed to telling the story of neglect."

"It's important to show what happens in intentional neglect, and how people lived, and why they're still committed to their communities and their buildings, even if [they're told], 'Take a voucher and move to Lincoln Park,' " Lee says, making a jab at recent CHA policies as we step gingerly through the remains of an abandoned kitchen. "It's like, no, they would rather live in a space where they have their people and they have their memories. That's the part that capitalism never understands."

The rubble will be cleared, she says, and old closet doors, incinerator hatches, and medicine cabinets will help tell stories of the lives and social movements that sprang from public housing.

The interior of the National Public Housing Museum's future home has decayed significantly since 2002, when the last residents moved out. - AARON BARLOW
  • Aaron Barlow
  • The interior of the National Public Housing Museum's future home has decayed significantly since 2002, when the last residents moved out.

Under the direction of Landon Bone Baker Architects, part of the building will be transformed into a visitor center, entrepreneurial hub, and exhibition space. The side facing Taylor Street will be fitted with a giant bay window intended to be a visual reference to the way demolitions of public housing buildings reveal intimate, interior views of people's apartments. In the courtyard, a group of animal sculptures by modernist artist and onetime Hull House resident Edgar Miller will be restored and returned to their original home. Three apartments will be re-created to reflect those of actual families who lived in the Addams Homes—one Italian, one Jewish, and one African-American—to demonstrate the variety of experiences in public housing across time. Visitors will be invited to interact with these spaces—sit on the furniture, explore the bookshelves, pick up objects. Artifacts collected from residents, such as a family photo or a pair of shoes or a stove, will allow guides to engage visitors in discussions about the ways personal lives and public policy intertwined in the projects. The museum visit will be shaped at every step by oral histories of a multitude of current and former residents that the NPHM has collected over the last decade—whether told through audio installations or as part of the script of docents' tours.

Lee shines her flashlight around a third-floor apartment cluttered with broken stone and decayed wood, and explains that the physical transformation of the building is bound to larger ideological challenges. The museum has to figure out how to strike the right balance between stories of joy and resilience and those of struggle and suffering, all while providing visitors a civic and political education, and avoiding a lapse into "poverty porn."

Museum organizers have long wavered on whether the hallways should smell like urine—one of the oft-cited indignities of life in public housing. "Since it's not the real urine, anything that you do is gonna be very Disney-esque," Lee says of her position on this issue. In her mind, a sensory theme-park-style experience is out of the question. So how then can a museum effectively and engagingly communicate the harsh reality of living without heat and maintenance services, or in a building designed with flaws that could lead to a child falling to his death or a woman being killed by intruders coming through her bathroom mirror?

Lee points to successful precedents among the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, an umbrella organization of places that serve to educate the public about painful historical events. Along with the NPHM, the membership includes the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where New York City tenements are re-created and tour guides engage visitors in discussions about politics and policy. Another member site, the Manzanar Japanese internment camp in central California, features reconstructions of World War II-era barracks and latrines that highlight the total lack of privacy endured by internees.

Successful sites of conscience don't just tell histories of oppression and survival. They also take a moral stance on the past and push visitors to think critically about current events. Lee says she's in the camp of museologists who believe that "in order to politicize people, you never suture them in too closely so they pretend, 'Oh, I felt like I was a public housing resident!' You always make people aware of their own privilege, where they're coming from, their historical distance."

The gambit is getting visitors to understand their own relationship to the politics that created public housing initially as a working-class paradise, then as segregated warehouses for the poor, and finally erased it altogether, telling residents it was no way to live in the first place.

"The public housing of Chicago came down because people intentionally didn't keep it up, because they had grand designs of restructuring it," Lee says, referring to the events that would lead to Mayor Daley's $1.5 billion Plan for Transformation.

The museum plan includes exhibition space, apartment recreations, and an entrepreneurial hub for public housing residents. - LANDON BONE BAKER ARCHITECTS
  • Landon Bone Baker Architects
  • The museum plan includes exhibition space, apartment recreations, and an entrepreneurial hub for public housing residents.

The failed promise of those grand designs is apparent in the area surrounding the NPHM's future home. The 166 acres on which the dozens of buildings in the ABLA group once stood are now pockmarked by vast empty lots. While the Brooks Homes were rehabbed and remain public housing, the mixed-income redevelopment of the neighborhood was stalled by the 2008 recession. Three- and four-story buildings, made up of a combination of market-rate condos and affordable and public-housing rental units, dot the landscape between Taylor and 15th Streets, along with a handful of churches keeping vigil over a dispersed community.

The ABLA community center, however, was renovated, and the building remains a hub for resident activity, as it was in Deverra Beverly's day. A photographic portrait of Beverly, approximately four feet tall, surveils the remodeled LAC office. Children run past a case filled with awards and plaques from various city organizations recognizing Beverly's service.

Reflecting on the Plan for Transformation, Modene Jordan, vice president of the Brooks Homes LAC, says that when the old project buildings were demolished a sense of unity in the neighborhood went with them.

"Over the division of them bringing in new stuff and taking things away, it really made us all go in our own little direction," she says. Losing the physical spaces, however tarnished, meant losing a record of their lives. "You took things that was sentimental and valuable to us as kids," she says. "With our kids, where can we show them and have them go to where we had safe haven? It's not here."

The National Public Housing Museum will re-create apartments of three families who resided in the Jane Addams Homes. - LANDON BONE BAKER ARCHITECTS
  • Landon Bone Baker Architects
  • The National Public Housing Museum will re-create apartments of three families who resided in the Jane Addams Homes.
The Hatch family, residents of the Jane Addams Homes throughout the 1960s, will be the focus of one of the apartment re-creations at the National Public Housing Museum. - COURTESY MARSHALL HATCH
  • Courtesy Marshall Hatch
  • The Hatch family, residents of the Jane Addams Homes throughout the 1960s, will be the focus of one of the apartment re-creations at the National Public Housing Museum.

When local public housing residents talk about what the museum will be, they don't mention politicizing visitors, challenging capitalism, or other high-minded ideals. Instead, they yearn for a memorial to ABLA.

"Hopefully, when they do open the museum, it has a reflection of us in there, the community itself, telling our stories," says Baggett, the Brooks Homes LAC president. "I'm quite sure they're gonna discuss other different public housing, but we want to make sure we are in there and part of the focus. . . . We want to make sure that they show how we lived inside these areas."

The residents' vision isn't necessarily at odds with Lee's, but it harkens back to what Beverly pictured the public housing memorial would be, before the museum experts and university professors and philanthropists got involved. Those who remember that early period recall that the initial objective was to create little more than a storefront room with some display cases of old photos and artifacts.

"In their vision, it was really about their community and their story," says Tim Veenstra, who oversaw the CHA's redevelopment of ABLA beginning in the late 90s and worked closely with Beverly and other residents. "It was more of an ABLA museum."

Peter Pero, a historian of Little Italy and author of the book Chicago Italians at Work, was among the few white locals to support the museum from the start. He remembers Beverly describing the place in modest terms: "We're gonna sit around the room and have coffee and we'll talk about the good times, not the slums and the killing."

No one seemed to have any objections to this idea in the beginning. But neither did it garner enough interest and resources to propel it into existence. The CHA, meanwhile, was busy leveling more and more ABLA buildings.

In the early 2000s, Beverly began to push for one of them to be saved for the museum. "We just decided that we would take it to the Chicago Housing Authority and put it in writing that we would like to have a museum," Beverly told the Tribune in 2004, "so we could make sure that we could show our heritage here."

The CHA contracted a consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study and concluded the museum would cost $20 million. It held several forums with residents and the community that never seemed to progress beyond talk. But one of those meetings was attended by photojournalist Richard Cahan, then a program officer at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

"I thought it was a fantastic idea, an important, profound idea that needed more than a room," Cahan says. "I saw the museum as a chance to talk about the issues so much bigger than public housing—about government's responsibility to house citizens." It seemed like something the foundation would be interested in funding.

Not long after the meeting, Beverly and Pero contacted the foundation. In a 2004 conversation with Driehaus director Sunny Fischer, widely respected in local and national philanthropy circles, they explained that they needed a $25,000 grant to secure and carefully board up the building on Taylor Street while they raised funds to get the museum off the ground.

"They were afraid that the building would be a mess by the time they felt they could raise the money to create the museum," Fischer says. But after talking to Beverly and Pero, it became clear to her that they wouldn't "have the capacity" to raise the $20 million the CHA had deemed necessary.

"As a funder you ask the questions—OK, if we give you $25,000, then what happens? And as I was listening to the response, they didn't really have a plan at that time about moving forward," Fischer recalls. "I think what I said to them was, 'This is a great idea and we want to help you. I'm not sure that securing the building more than it is right now will be the best use of money.' But that's when we started figuring out how we could be helpful."

As it happened, Fischer herself had grown up in public housing in the Bronx. Her husband, Lake Forest College professor Paul Fischer, has devoted much of his career to researching public housing. "I used to say I was related to public housing by birth and by marriage," she says. But unlike the residents spearheading the push for the museum, she never thought about that element of her background as anything worth memorializing.

Her interest in the lives and welfare of the poor was rooted more deeply in her work. Then in her late 50s, Fischer was originally a high school English teacher at the elite North Shore Country Day School, but she also worked with the Upward Bound college prep program for low-income kids. Eventually she transitioned into social work. Volunteering at women's shelters in the early 1980s, she saw how little funding was directed toward poor women. She later banded together with several influential local philanthropists to start the Chicago Foundation for Women.

Fischer came to the Driehaus Foundation in 1992, and over time she came to think that its money was being disproportionately spent on preserving the homes and history of affluent Illinoisans. Shortly before Beverly's visit, Fischer had toured the new Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York and was intrigued by the concept. "The foundation is spending a lot of time and energy and resources on how really wealthy people lived," Fischer recalls thinking. "Maybe we should put some resources into seeing how people without any resources lived in public housing."

The alliance between Beverly and Fischer opened a new chapter in the museum's history. With Beverly's political and community pull and Fischer's philanthropic connections, the museum was a step closer to reality. But it would also have serious opposition to contend with in the years ahead.

The museum has hosted temporary exhibitions at the site, including a 2015 event for which the cryptic phrase “House Housing” was painted on the exterior. - MAYA DUKMASOVA
  • Maya Dukmasova
  • The museum has hosted temporary exhibitions at the site, including a 2015 event for which the cryptic phrase “House Housing” was painted on the exterior.

The Chicago Housing Authority proved to be the most persistent obstacle, notwithstanding its apparent willingness to entertain the idea of the museum. In 2006, Fischer went to see the agency's head at the time, Sharon Gist Gilliam, to discuss the logistics of getting inside the Taylor Street building. Gist Gilliam had been a deft city government operator for years. A former schoolteacher like Fischer, she rose to prominence in Mayor Harold Washington's administration as the director of the Office of Budget Management and continued on to a variety of high-profile appointments. She reminded Fischer that the museum would have to raise $20 million and added the stipulation that organizers would need to do it within the next two years to get the agency to sign over the building.

The figure and the time frame were "daunting," Fischer says. Raising that much money in two years is a big ask for any cultural institution. But for the fledgling public housing museum, $20 million might as well have been $20 billion. "Public housing," Fischer says, "is not on a lot of radars of foundations or very wealthy people."

She took Gist Gilliam's requirements as a reflection of the agency's desire to dispose of its buildings quickly in the heat of the Plan for Transformation. This could've taken the form of demolition or rehab, but a vacant walk-up standing indefinitely on a thoroughfare of what would ultimately be the CHA's $600 million redevelopment of the ABLA area wasn't exactly part of the program.

Gist Gilliam, who's now retired, has no recollection of meeting Fischer, but she remembers hearing about the plan for the museum. Besides being troubled by the vacant building mucking up redevelopment, she simply believed it was a stupid idea.

"At the time I thought, Well, this is an idea going nowhere," she recalls. "Who the hell is going to go to a public housing museum?" She adds that she was highly skeptical of entertaining discussions with a yet-to-be-established organization, even with backing from Driehaus. In true Chicago fashion, she wasn't much interested in dealing with nobody nobody sent.

"You've got someone unknown purporting to be a new, never-heard-of museum, and you're just handing them a building?" she recalls thinking. "It's not like the MSI or the Field coming to you saying they want to put in an extension of an existing museum."

Though the fund-raising goal seemed unattainable, Fischer walked away determined to stir up as much public attention and interest in the idea as possible. In October 2006 she convened a meeting of public housing residents, philanthropists, museum experts, civic leaders, academics, and journalists to tour the boarded-up building on Taylor Street and brainstorm strategies for moving forward. But the increased attention roused still more more opponents.

Some housing advocates thought there was nothing wrong with the idea of the museum per se, but took the position that using an entire CHA building for a museum, as well as all the resources required to create it, was a bad idea given the acute need for affordable housing in the city and the amount of displacement in the neighborhood.

"I felt it was misdirected energy," says Janet Smith, a professor of urban planning at UIC who'd been scrutinizing CHA policies since the 90s. "I think the political capital they were expending to get [the museum] should have gone to development of housing first."

“To have a museum that actually belongs to and is the voice of housing residents is sort of really scary,” says Lisa Lee, director of the National Public Housing Museum. - MAYA DUKMASOVA
  • Maya Dukmasova
  • “To have a museum that actually belongs to and is the voice of housing residents is sort of really scary,” says Lisa Lee, director of the National Public Housing Museum.

Others didn't want a museum for public housing to exist at all, especially not in a big building in the the heart of Taylor Street. Foremost in this camp was the notorious political operator, disgraced attorney, and mustachioed "Mayor of Little Italy," Oscar D'Angelo.

What Beverly was to ABLA, D'Angelo was to Little Italy. He'd lived in the neighborhood his entire life, and rose to become an influential, if not uncontested, leader in a community with a history of discord and violent clashes with its African-American public housing neighbors. But he was a much bigger power broker in city government than the public housing leader. While Daley respected Beverly enough to put her on the CHA board of commissioners, D'Angelo was frequently described as the mayor's "confidant"—this despite being disbarred in 1989 for bribing county judges and other officials. D'Angelo finally fell from grace in 2000, after news broke that he'd made interest-free loans to Daley aides and illegally lobbied officials to put two friends of the mayor's wife, Maggie, into business at O'Hare.

Despite these scandals, D'Angelo remained powerful and respected on the Near West Side. At the brainstorming session Fischer organized, he and Beverly got into it.

"We knew the community was going to change," Beverly said, according to a column by Mary Mitchell of the Sun-Times. "What we wanted to do was leave a part of our own culture in this neighborhood. We had lawyers, airplane pilots, doctors, all kinds of professions came from ABLA." D'Angelo scoffed at this respectability narrative. He made references to public housing families watching television at all times and not caring about when their children came home. "D'Angelo said he wasn't interested in the 'seven doctors, seven lawyers, and seven black pilots' that came out of ABLA," Mitchell wrote. "If that's what it is going to be about," he reportedly said, "then it's not a museum, but a falsehood."

Though the CHA was already working with Related Midwest to redevelop the ABLA area, D'Angelo organized a competing group of contractors and tried to convince the agency to pick them to work on the commercial strip along Taylor Street. Instead of saving the Addams Homes building, D'Angelo's plan would've created a row of Italianate buildings along the corridor, with ground-floor retail to complement the existing restaurant row. As Veenstra recalls, D'Angelo proposed giving some space to the museum in one of the storefronts.

But D'Angelo's clout wasn't what it had been in prior decades, and the leadership turnover at the CHA didn't help his idea gain traction. Despite D'Angelo's opposition, Pero says people in Little Italy warmed to the idea of restoring the old building once the plan included telling the stories of Jane Addams Homes' original Italian residents, in addition to opening an Italian deli on the Taylor Street side of the building.

With Gist Gilliam's departure at the end of 2007, the pressure of the two-year time line fell away. Subsequent leadership didn't seem particularly preoccupied with either the museum or the disposal of the building, especially once the recession hit a year later. By summer 2008, the agency had extended the museum's deadline to raise the funds to 2011, and said it would need only $13 million instead of the original $20 million. As more CEOs came and went, those benchmarks, too, disappeared.

With each shake-up in the agency, "the museum people would come and explain what they were doing to the new CHA leadership and they would say, 'OK, go ahead, keep going,' " says Veenstra, who left in the fall of 2015. For years, the CHA basically took a hands-off approach, not making any moves to sign the building over, but also not doing much to stand in the museum's way.

"I think the CHA people in the beginning felt if they waited long enough we'd go away," Fischer says. She'd heard through the grapevine that some within the agency saw the museum as a joke.

Rendering of the exterior of the National Public Housing Museum building - LANDON BONE BAKER ARCHITECTS
  • Landon Bone Baker Architects
  • Rendering of the exterior of the National Public Housing Museum building

Nevertheless, Fischer, Beverly, and other museum supporters, who eventually established a nonprofit organization with a board and a three-person staff, kept up the hunt for dollars.

Though it was tough to get people to give money to a museum without a home, especially during the recession, organizers started thinking of the NPHM as a "museum in the streets" and began to organize and sponsor events around Chicago to make its institutional presence known. In February 2010 in the lobby of the Merchandise Mart they created an exhibition about public housing that included a replica of a project apartment. In 2012 they mounted another exhibit on public housing as the "unsung cradle of American music," tracing the careers of prominent recording artists back to the projects. They held book talks and events for residents to share their memories while exposing the wider community to the complexity of the experience of living in public housing. They helped the late American Theater Company artistic director PJ Paparelli create his last production, The Project(s), a critically acclaimed show based on residents' oral histories collected over five years and staged in 2015.

In 2010, the Ford Foundation gave the museum a $1 million grant to fund the museum's operating expenses for five years. The MacArthur Foundation, the Boeing Company, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Alphawood Foundation, among many others, also chipped in.

The organizers' plan for the museum—both what they'd do with the space and how they'd use the platform—morphed through many iterations. Their goal shifted from taking over the entire building at once to today's more modest target of opening a first phase in the 17,000 square feet of the Taylor Street side of the structure. For this the NPHM has raised nearly $3 million of a $7 million capital campaign.

Pitching the museum to attract philanthropists requires a broad vision for how it will become a noteworthy cultural institution with a national profile. And that's required grappling with the fact that in Chicago as across the country, public housing is plagued by negative stigma. Lee says that to catch general public interest it has been important to "excavate" the history of American subsidized housing and challenge basic assumptions colored by decades of grim news stories about the projects.

The museum's early PR efforts highlighted, as Beverly had at the meeting with D'Angelo, that exceptional people came from public housing. Lee describes that as the " 'Did you know?' phase."

"Did you know that Jimmy Carter grew up in public housing? Did you know that Barbra Streisand grew up in public housing? There were all of these uplifting stories that the museum needed to tell of people who grew up in public housing and who grew up being traditionally quote-unquote 'successful' in society," Lee says.

Most of those early exhibitions also carefully sidestepped any criticism of the CHA's contemporary policies. Keith Magee, the museum's first executive director, says "it was too soon to explore the Plan for Transformation" when he came on board in 2009. He adds that it wasn't a matter of political pressure, but that the NPHM felt it couldn't fairly evaluate the impact of the policy when emotions among displaced residents were still raw.

But in recent years NPHM organizers have moved away from a focus on famous people and become more active in current policy analysis through events that center on critical perspectives on the CHA. They've sponsored lectures by researchers who eviscerate the Plan for Transformation as a scheme to rid desirable city neighborhoods of poor African-Americans; they've also partnered with affordable housing activists to collect data on the impact of the CHA's voucher policies. And residents themselves, four of whom are on the NPHM board, have been involved in organizing the events.

Lee doesn't think that the museum should buy into bootstrap success narratives or sugarcoat present-day housing struggles. And while parts of the museum's plan remain abstract, the pitch for what the NPHM will be when it opens has coalesced around certain foundational elements: the apartment reconstructions, the repository of oral histories, the housing policy research center, and the "entrepreneurial hub" for CHA residents to incubate ideas for starting their own businesses. Lee and company intend the museum experience to lead visitors to examine notions about house and home and confront received ideas about what it means to be American. But they also want it to be a place that gives back to the residents. The NPHM has promised to give residents museum construction and operation jobs. Once built, the site will serve as a space for assembly.

After Beverly's death in 2013, other resident leaders stepped up to carry her torch on the board and keep the museum in touch with its fundamental values. But while the NPHM's profile has steadily grown, a number of central figures have fallen away from the cause. Even Lee, the fourth director in eight years, admits to losing steam for a year. Periodic news reports over the last decade predicted groundbreakings one year or grand openings the next, yet the anticipated deals with the CHA never came to pass. "I was like, 'This is never going to happen. We're never going to get this lease.' "

Further complicating matters, the various stakeholders haven't always agreed behind the scenes that the vision for the institution has been moving in the right direction. The discussion about what exactly the NPHM will be and what it will strive to accomplish continues. As more people outside public housing get on board, organizers are wrestling with how to hold true to the museum's roots at ABLA, how to make themselves relevant to a wider audience without alienating their original constituents.

An ABLA building circa 1988 - SUN-TIMES ARCHIVE
  • Sun-Times archive
  • An ABLA building circa 1988

At an event cohosted by the NPHM in late March, several dozen public policy students from the University of Chicago and regular people who live with "housing choice" vouchers (aka Section 8) gathered at the ABLA community center. The students collected oral histories from the voucher holders about their experiences of trying to find affordable, accessible, quality rental housing in the city and any discrimination they'd faced during the process. "These stories," a flyer for the event said, "will be recorded and used to advocate for fairer affordable housing policies in Chicago."

Lee got up in front of the crowd to explain that this project was a reflection of the institution's belief that voucher holders' stories are also important, and that the museum wants to be actively involved in not just documenting but also directing public policy.

By the end of the evening what began as an awkward Q&A with the students had snowballed into impassioned conversations among the voucher holders themselves. No longer noticing the audio recorders, they commiserated with one another about dealing with landlords who openly told them they wouldn't take vouchers, about having to move into substandard apartments in dangerous or far-flung parts of the city—and about the financial reprieve and security from homelessness the vouchers have nevertheless provided when they became unexpectedly ill or lost their jobs.

Jackie Paige, an organizer in the voucher-holder community, said afterward that she appreciated that the museum made it a priority to include Section 8 residents. She said it was also helpful for her to learn more about her peers' problems, so she can attempt to address them with the CHA. Normally, Paige explained, she can't so much as access a list of voucher holders' contact information to solicit feedback about their experiences. "We have to go and stand outside of the [CHA's] satellite offices and ask the voucher holders for the information," she said.

Unlike public housing communities, who have officially recognized tenant representatives, voucher holders don't have any comparable means to communicate with the CHA—another consequence of the Plan for Transformation. In its own small way that night, the museum was able to offer recourse and show its potential to help those dealing with present-day housing problems—to become, as Lee puts it, a "site of resistance."

But Baggett, the Brooks Homes LAC president, didn't see it that way. She said she couldn't understand why the museum would organize and request to use public housing residents' community space for an event focused on voucher holders.

"How can you have someone from Section 8 come and tell their story when their story does not pertain to the museum?" Baggett asked me after the event. "They didn't come from Jane Addams or anywhere in ABLA, they came from somewhere else. So how can they tell a story and place it inside a museum that's supposed to be about this area right here?"

The territoriality Baggett gave voice to is perhaps a by-product of fatigue from the museum's long gestation and residents' fear of erasure in a community where so many memories have been bulldozed. But Baggett isn't alone in feeling skeptical about the museum's direction.

Peter Pero, Beverly's original ally from Little Italy, hasn't kept up very closely with the museum in recent years, but he still lives near the building and laments its run-down state. He also regrets that the museum organization, which once had offices at nearby UIC, has left the neighborhood for Archeworks, a design incubator and coworking space in River North.

"I don't want to be critical, because I want this thing to happen," Pero says. But he allows that he's confused by the broad scope of the museum's public events. "They're running seminars on the value of restoring public housing for the whole world . . . 'What should public housing be in our times?' " There's no more talk about an Italian deli on the ground floor or the homey conversation space Beverly once described to him.

During the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial parts of the building were cleaned up for several temporary exhibits; the name of one, "House Housing," was painted in white on the plywood covering the windows and has remained on the facade ever since. "It makes no sense to the locals," Pero says.

Despite his admiration for Fischer, Lee, and many others involved in the museum, Pero, watching from the sidelines, has gotten the impression that the problem with getting the NPHM open hasn't really been a matter of wrangling the CHA for access to the building and raising the money, but of the programming for the museum straying too far from its roots. "I just say: show me the money, show me where they spent ten years of money. I bet it would have finished the deli and bookstore instead of drawing speakers [focused] on public housing in London, Holland, and South Africa," Pero says. "Frankly, the neighbors around here are very frustrated," he says, because the Taylor Street building remains empty. "And every day we talk, the rain trickles deeper down the walls."

The interior of the National Public Housing Museum's future home is greatly dilapidated. - MAYA DUKMASOVA
  • Maya Dukmasova
  • The interior of the National Public Housing Museum's future home is greatly dilapidated.

Though there's no evidence that the museum has squandered its money or tried to intentionally sideline ABLA residents, Pero's and Baggett's questions get at the challenges that can't be overcome by words—challenges inherent to wealthy, highly educated professionals taking up a cause born of a poor, marginalized community. And there will be more, especially once the museum transubstantiates from an idea expressed through renderings, temporary exhibits, and special events into an actual, physical place. The true test of the museum's potential to at once honor and illuminate the housing struggles of the past and digest and engage with those of the present will come with myriad decisions NPHM organizers have to make before opening day. First, there's making good on the promises Lee and the CHA have made to include ample construction and operation job opportunities for residents. The staff is also trying to find an approach to curation so exhibits aren't relevant only to a bourgeois elite. Other considerations: Can the admission structure be both sustainable and fair? Will the operating hours jibe with working families' schedules? Will there be a prominent security presence in the lobby?

Such decisions have shaped the fate of other social justice businesses and well-intentioned nonprofits. Theaster Gates's Rebuild Foundation recently came under fire for allegedly tokenizing black artists while reserving management positions for whites; meanwhile, renowned chef Daniel Patterson's healthy fast-food venture in low-income California neighborhoods, Locol, has been compromised because it caters to young, hip aesthetes despite being managed by locals.

Perhaps the most important unknown is whether a public housing museum built on the ruins of a displaced and disappeared community of low-income African-Americans will be capable of challenging Americans to grapple with racism and poverty, however progressive its ideology. Will the museum test the current problematic policies of its landlord, from the CHA's years-long waiting list to its controversial reserve budget to its broken promises of public housing preservation at places like the Lathrop Homes and LeClaire Courts?

Ever the optimist, Lee believes the NPHM won't shrink from the difficult conversations. "Over the last decade we've always been in this relationship with CHA, and we've done a lot of programs where we've been the space for resident voices, activism, and advocacy," she argues. "If they tried to kick us out because of content, that would be a really big struggle, and I don't anticipate that." But she also adds that she thinks the museum's dynamic with the agency won't be "us versus them," because she's convinced that its administrators and staff are similarly committed to the "idea of public good."

Eugene Jones, the present head of the CHA, is enthusiastic about the museum. "It's not only for the citizens of Chicago, it's for all the citizens across the country who've been involved in public housing," he says. "We want this to be a destination point when people come to Chicago that will rival any museum across the country."

After years of stalemate with the CHA, Jones's arrival in 2015 turned the tide for the NPHM. Fischer says it immediately became clear that he "doesn't think it's a joke and he does want to help us."

The moment that the CHA board finally approved the lease was, Lee says, both momentous and anticlimactic. "It was so celebratory and everyone was so happy. But it's also like, 'What happened? How did it happen?' Like, all of a sudden, after years of activism, anxiety, hand-wringing, and thinking that it's not going to happen, there's a unanimous vote saying 'Of course we can do it.' "

She likens the triumph to the fall of the Berlin Wall, where years of work to change politics and culture led to a moment of dramatic progress. (A more apt comparison might be to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which took a hundred years to come into being after it was first conceived by a group of black Union Army veterans.) "All of a sudden there was no resistance," she says. "I was like, 'All right, the CHA is giving us the lease—now this museum can open because the cultural work has happened.' "

In Lee's mind the long road to opening the NPHM has been both inevitable and invaluable. She sees the idea behind the museum as a radical one—its purpose is in part to make visible and bolster stories of racism and corruption in the city, to give a platform to narratives that will speak truth to power. "They've always used museums to maintain power and privilege," Lee says. "To have a museum that actually belongs to and is the voice of housing residents is sort of really scary."

She describes all the hoops museum organizers have had to jump through with the CHA as the "bureaucratic processes that are set up . . . to not hand over a building for a group of marginalized voices to tell their stories." But the CHA didn't hand over the building to a group of marginalized ABLA residents. The residents had to be represented by a respected nonprofit with a roster of wealthy backers before a transaction could take place. In other words, the NPHM didn't change the terms under which a museum in Chicago can be created, but rather successfully conformed to long-established expectations. In order to be worthy of the building, it had to become bigger than Beverly and her residents.

The CHA's recognition of the museum, however monumental, shouldn't be mistaken for a sea change in Chicago's broader relationship to its poor. Still, Lee believes the National Public Housing Museum is now more urgently needed than ever. As privatization reshapes not just subsidized housing but also schools, health care, and infrastructure, American society is abandoning "the notion of the public itself and the idea of the common good," she observes. "Part of the resistance is making sure people understand what is this thing we call public housing. How do we understand its future in the soul of what it means to be in America?" The museum will continue its attempt to answer that question when it finally opens its doors to the public next year.   v

Correction: The story has been amended to reflect the museum's ongoing negotiations with the CHA over the terms of the lease on the Taylor Street building.

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