On February 11, I along with Richard Anderson, one of NPHM’s Research Residents in 2014 participated in a discussion at New Jersey's Princeton University (which happens to be my alma mater), part of the new Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism & the Humanities.
I couldn't help but be struck by the decade-plus that had passed since I sat as an architectural history undergraduate (mostly dutifully with innovative interdisciplinary 90's era coursework like "Sexuality and Space", if occasionally napping through "Structures") in the architecture school's Betts Auditorium.
I was there thanks largely to the efforts of Anderson, a PhD student at Princeton. He opened the noon-time talk with reflections about how he came to NPHM driven by his interest in public history. As a museum collaborator, Richard was at the table as we endeavored to craft a civic narrative through sometimes humble means (a planting day, a street fair information booth). All the while informing NPHM’s collections infrastructure by lending us his insights into Daley-era urban politics on the Near West Side.
My presentation was intended to share with the convened interdisciplinary scholars how my work with the museum addresses what I framed as a paradoxical promise. How we engage a complex historical site and grassroots-owned stories of public housing in the loaded institutional construct (and rarified building type) of "a museum".
I touched upon how the museum attempts to innovate in programming and curation to reclaim a place associated (unfairly) by the general public with “failure” and undermine misconceptions about the value of public housing through storytelling led by current residents.
I also spoke to the challenges of balancing a critical lens on contemporary issues while also pushing forward an ongoing building project to build out the museum's home -- one which is inherently immersed in the present day realities of urban planning and real estate development.
I was delighted to meet new Princeton Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor who moderated the discussion between myself, Anderson and the Princeton community, drawing upon her deep knowledge of Chicago (gaving earned her PhD from Northwestern and starting her teaching career at UIUC).
Taylor deftly encouraged discussion about the NPHM project in the context of broader narratives she's researched deeply. She foregrounded ways the demise of public housing coincides with public policies emphasizing the moral virtue of single-family homeownership, encouraging “market-based solutions” for low-income families. Policies whose unraveling in the Great Recession, along with the disinvestment in public solutions to housing, continues to scar the American landscape.
Against the paradox of preserving a relic of a misunderstood and vanishing era of public building, the room brimmed with optimism about the museum’s potential to serve as a permanent site from which to rebuild a site of the “public good”. I left having discovered new allies (yes, even in the Ivy Leagues) who share our common concern to confront inequalities society has yet to fully resolve.
Written by Associate Director & Curator, Todd Palmer