“The story of public housing has been engulfed by stereotypes and misconceptions. Facts have been distorted. Nuance has been lost. Residents’ real-life accounts have been reduced to tropes of exceptionalism or tragedy—or forgotten altogether.”
Many people believe they understand public housing in America. Most of them are massively wrong.
That’s because the story of public housing has been engulfed by stereotypes and misconceptions. Facts have been distorted. Nuance has been lost. Residents’ real-life accounts have been reduced to tropes of exceptionalism or tragedy—or forgotten altogether.
The prevailing cultural narrative is that public housing is and was only for poor people of color, specifically Black people. There are also reasons for that narrative. Public housing became predominantly inhabited by Black people in the United States mainly due to the long lingering economic and social impact of the injustice of slavery, the racist federal housing policies that re-inscribed segregation, redlining and unfair banking practices, and Jim Crow policies. In reality, more than 10 million U.S. residents of various racial and ethnic backgrounds have lived in public housing over the past century. And now, they’re pushing back.
Current and former public housing residents are coalescing to tell their own stories, in their own words, through the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago. While the NPHM is based in the Midwest, it features stories of public housing residents from across the country, including several voices from New York. The NPHM is the first cultural institution in the United States dedicated to interpreting and contextualizing the American experience in public housing.
Using oral histories, art and artifacts, the museum will archive and share public housing stories of hope and personal achievement, as well as tales of resistance and resilience. The goal is to dispel lingering falsehoods and change the narrative about public housing while fostering deeper understanding about who this housing serves and why it matters.
Harnessing the Power of Oral History
Oral storytelling is an ancient art, but its potency has not waned. Stories stir us, sparking empathy, admiration and understanding. Stories build bridges between human beings.
The NPHM’s Oral History Archive and Corps consists of a body of interviews with people from across the country who have lived in public housing, recorded by a diverse group of oral historians. Several interviews were conducted with residents of New York and Chicago public housing developments. At present, NPHM’s archive holds about 150 recordings of public housing experiences dating back to 2007. The museum’s digital archives will be open to the public as early as this summer. A permanent oral history exhibit is planned as part of the interactive design of the museum’s new home, once completed, in the last remaining building of the now-vacant Jane Addams Homes, a former public housing site located in Chicago.
One potent oral history features Daphany Rose Sanchez, a native New Yorker, third generation NYCHA resident and energy equity advocate. Her words illustrate the crucial importance of public housing residents giving voice to their own stories to debunk stereotypes. “There’s this misconception that people [who live in public housing] are lazy and people don’t want to work and they don’t want to do all these things. But there’s no grounding to all of that. It’s just things that people have heard, and they assume that it’s facts,” Sanchez said in a 2021 interview.
She added, “I’m fed up. I’m fed up with people looking at folks like they’re meaningless just because of where they live. It’s like … your level of humanity is related to the four walls that you decide to put your bed in. No, that’s, that’s—that doesn’t even make sense when you hear it! Right? It makes no sense at all.”
Elevating Personal Stories Through Everyday Objects
Scores of notable public figures spent their early years in public housing, from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who grew up in the Bronx, to Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who lived with his family in the Bayview Housing projects in Canarsie, New York.
President Jimmy Carter was also a former public housing resident, as were musicians Elvis Presley, Thelonius Monk, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and Jay-Z. The list goes on and on.
While these individuals have remarkable, dazzling careers, it’s important to spotlight the stories of everyday public housing residents. Their voices and memories also carry immense weight. The NPHM’s main gallery houses a permanent exhibit displaying everyday objects used by everyday people living in public housing. These simple artifacts are full of significance, and they’re displayed alongside evocative captions written by residents that explain the objects’ meaning.
Take, for example, the desk donated by Sunny Fischer, who, as a child, lived with her family in the Eastchester Projects in the Bronx. The desk, which was her father’s, “gave him an aura of importance and busyness, a respite from his job as a mailman,” wrote Fischer, who is the chair of the NPHM board of directors. “Drawers held index cards with notes and to-do lists for his volunteer commitments, and negatives of photos he wanted to develop—his other life. It’s the only piece of furniture he kept always, and the only thing I asked for when he died.”
Another object on display is a wooden bowl from Jack Medor, whose mother and father both lived in Chicago’s Jane Addams Homes but did not meet until years later. “Generations have used this chopping bowl to make gefilte fish for the Jewish holidays,” said Medor, who inherited the bowl from his mother, Inez. She, in turn, had received it from her own mother, who had moved to the United States from Belarus.
Objects can be chock full of emotional resonance and familial lore. By displaying these items, the National Public Housing Museum suggests a new, more nuanced way of looking at personal and collective history—and a new way of seeing other each other.
Replacing a ‘Single Story’ with a Robust Depiction of Public Housing
In a 2009 TED talk, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned of the danger of a single narrative about people or places. “It is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person,” Ngozi Adichie said. “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
The public housing residents involved with the NPHM are razing stereotypical narratives and telling their own authentic, layered stories, spurring us all to interrogate how we see the past and envision a more equitable future.
Lisa Lee is the executive director of the National Public Housing Museum.