Keith L. Magee, ThD, introduces The National Public Housing Museum
Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Richard Driehaus Foundation Executive Director Sunny Fischer. Three recognizable names in Chicago, all known for their incredible civic contributions in different communities, with one common denominator – each grew up in public housing.
“You’d be surprised to learn the true stories behind the people who’ve lived in public housing both locally and nationally,” explains Keith L. Magee, ThD, executive director, The National Public Housing Museum (NPHM) and Center for the Study of Housing and Society.
The new space, featuring ‘phased openings’ throughout 2013 at 132 West Taylor Street, is situated in the former location of the Jane Addams Homes public housing project. “The location is special is because Jane Addams Homes was inhabited by every culture from 1938-2002,” notes Dr. Magee. “We can document Polish, Mexican, Jewish, African-American and Italian-American families – you name it. They all have footprints here. If we’re going to tell the story of public housing, we have to tell it from a place where nearly everyone called home.”
The concept was developed over a decade ago, organizers came together in 2006 and the museum was granted non-profit status in 2007. Dr. Magee was hired as executive director in 2009. “The early idea behind the museum came from a group of former public housing residents, led by Beatrice Jones and Deverra Beverly [founding chair],” details Dr. Magee. “What better place to tell the nation’s public housing story than in Chicago?”
Initially splitting his time between the Midwest and East Coast, Dr. Magee left his position as senior director of the Museum of African American History in Boston/Nantucket to bring the NPHM dream to life. “I run day-to-day operations,” he says. And to that end, Dr. Magee is finally seeing the fruits of his labor (with the help of Ms. Jones, Ms. Deverra and many others), as the NPHM’s ‘phased openings’ will show each section as it’s completed.
Visitors will see new spaces/exhibits upon each outing. “You’ll view a ‘model’ apartment, see documents/artifacts and hear an oral history of actual families that lived in that space,” shares Dr. Magee. “And not every apartment will be completely ready right away, so you’ll have a reason to come back. One day, you’ll hear a Jewish family from the ‘40s discussing the Holocaust. In a few months, in that same apartment, there’ll be a recording about civil rights from the point of view of an African-American family living there in the ‘60s. One apartment will tell five stories.”
The NPHM will also have exhibition spaces, galleries, theaters and a community living room area with a café. “There’s a strategic plan in place so people keep coming back and wonder about what facets of public housing we’re going to showcase next – from Chicago to New York and beyond,” shares Dr. Magee.
However, Dr. Magee is quick to point out that the NPHM doesn’t seek to ‘romanticize’ the history of public housing. “This isn’t sexy – it’s the real story of what the tapestry of America looked like,” says the executive director. “I once met some people in Australia who associated public housing with the TV show Good Times, which was set in Chicago. That’s certainly not what public housing looked like in America, and Chicago has its own unique story. Were there welfare mothers? Sure. Were there people who were marginalized? Absolutely. However, for every 10 tales of people who’d struggled, there are just as many success stories. Some of the most powerful women have roots in public housing,” shares Dr. Magee, “whether it’s Ms. Fischer, who co-founded Chicago Foundation for Women; Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who lived in Bronx, New York, public housing; or former university professor Shalanda Dexter, PhD, who grew up in Cabrini Green.”
And for the first several decades of its existence, public housing residents received much more than a roof over their heads. “Many public housing communities offered additional services to residents, allowing them to balance the many struggles of day to day life. Health clinics onsite allowed families to stay well and daycare services became a savior for mothers who needed to return to work to support their families. After school programs and toy rentals kept children safe and off the streets. These services, along with the general sense of community that public housing created, allowed residents to find balance as they moved onward and upward.”
In the end, Dr. Magee’s vision for the NPHM is to give Chicago residents and visitors the opportunity to ‘live’ in public housing – to be a part of an institution. “Think about Cabrini Green or Jane Addams Homes. They’re no longer there, but there will be a museum that’s documented the lives of real people who lived in these projects – some stories dating back to the early 1900s. You’ll be able to say, ‘I’ve never been to the projects, but now I can go.’ It’s worth it.”
For more information about the NPHM, visit www.publichousingmuseum.org.