Telling Belongings: A Moving Night

While Telling Belongings concluded our “We Are A Part of Them” 2014 program series (made possible with a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council), do look for it to be the first of ongoing opportunities that connect the dots in NPHM between “public housing” and “museum.”  That’s to say -- in a one hour mash-up of storytelling and “show-and-tell” we sought to link the (stuffy) stewardship role of *all* museums (collecting and displaying “stuff,” or more politely, “belongings”) to the powerful and innovative mission of *this* museum: telling and remembering diverse first-hand stories of the American public housing experience.

What happened?

Jack Medor  drew our attention to a power of a family heirloom. His belonging: a simple bowl with a patina of chop marks in a delicate pattern that attests to generations making gefilte fish. In his telling we could almost taste the subtle flavorings that the bowl helped bring to life. Jack (who happens to be NPHM Board Treasurer) told the story on behalf of his mother Ines (Turovitz) Medor. He illuminated how cherished his ancestor's brand-new apartment would have been in 1938 as a cradle for keeping age-old spiritual traditions. The Turovitz-Medor family history will figure prominently in the core Museum apartment exhibitions.

Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor at New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist, recalled witnessing the Sears Tower going up in the early 70s just before his family left to purchase a home further west, saying: “It gave me a sense of how close it was, yet so far away for me.”  In a Chicago where much of the city remained off-limits to Blacks, Rev. Hatch spoke of an embracing community in the Jane Addams Homes – approaching a kind of utopia.  An ideal place where his family proudly displayed a World Book encyclopedia set (depicted in a photo from his “show and tell” biography). Coupled with the government’s commitment to local schools, in the Hatch family home (and one of our core exhibition "apartments") what was “public” was very good, indeed.

Maria Sopeña delivered a poignant account of her sometimes painful journey from exile in Cuba to being “raised by the streets” of Uptown. Ultimately the struggles of single motherhood brought her in the 90’s to CHA’s North Side scattered sites.  As a resident has consistently raised her voice to transform her community and serves now as a Central Advisory Council resident leader.  She shared a different side of her zeal to make an impact through her shared object.  Her painted Caribbean scene pointed to ethnic origins, but also to the possibility that home can also be a site for dreams and transcendence. Her story is a story of today, reminding us that the museum will be reflecting not just the past, but engaging present-day lives and touching on questions of the future.

Georgina Valverde deftly wove these distinct voices and stories into a moderated conversation and at the end, invited the audience in to share stories of their own. We had three incredible takers. A handcrafted hat revealed a story of friendship (and a place to sleep in a strange town).  A baseball revealed an ordinary day intersecting with world history. And a proudly worn Henry Horner Homes t-shirt and handwritten journal came to evoke the profoundly supportive impact of public housing in one woman’s life.

What did this interdisciplinary artist and (by day) educator at the Art Institute of Chicago make of these varied belongings and the stories about them? Georgina insisted to me afterwards: “they must be told -- so lived experience can become history! They can help heal people, not just those who lived and still live in public housing, but all of us.

by Todd Palmer, Interim Director and Curator, NPHM