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Little Italy Residents Express Mixed Feelings On Public Housing Museum

The vacant building that will become the National Public Housing Museum
The last standing structure from the Jane Addams Homes has been empty for eight years awaiting renovation that will transform the historic building into a public housing museum. The museum is set to open in 2012 pending adequate fundraising.

An ominous three-story brick building with boarded windows and a surrounding chain-link fence has sat vacant in the heart of Little Italy since 2002.

But Deverra Beverly, Commissioner on the Chicago Housing Authority’s Board, has ambitious plans for the space.

She hopes to transform the vacant building into a museum dedicated to telling the story of past and present public housing.

“As a lifelong resident of public housing, I didn’t want to lose the vision I had of it, and I wanted something to preserve it,” Beverly said.

Despite Beverly’s intentions, the surrounding community has mixed feelings about the museum’s vision, and the effect it will have on the neighborhood.

Concetta Maratea, an 18-year resident of Little Italy, said she did not think opening the museum would be a positive step for the community, due to the poor reputation of the nearby ABLA Homes housing development.

“We don’t want to have any memory of this,” Maratea said. “They should just let it go.”

However, Beverly said one of her motivations for opening the museum is to show that public housing was not always viewed negatively, but was once “a gift” to the community.

“We’re telling our story,” Beverly said. “We want to show all the positive things and make sure people understand what public housing really was.”

The building in question is located in the 1300 block of Taylor Street, and was part of the first housing project in Chicago, the Jane Addams Homes.

The building opened in 1938 as part of the Roosevelt administration’s Public Works Administration Act, a program aimed at creating jobs and reviving the economy in response to the Great Depression.

Plans for the museum have been in motion since December of 2006 when the CHA’s Central Advisory Council first proposed the museum and set a goal to open the museum’s doors by 2012.

But the plan’s momentum has been drawn almost to a halt by community disapproval and a lack of funding, according to Chris Provenzano, a spokesman for the University Village Association.

“The plan they [the CHA’s Central Advisory Council] presented was disappointing, and the community is concerned,” Provenzano said.

According to Provenzano, the UVA was concerned with the proposed remodel of the building, worrying it would not preserve the building’s historic integrity, but would integrate more modern designs.

However, Paul Rinaldi, 65, a lifelong resident of Little Italy, views the museum as an opportunity for the community to draw people in.

“A boarded up building doesn’t generate anything for the neighborhood, it deteriorates it,” Rinaldi said. “I think the museum will bring people here.”

Similarly, Jordan Glover, Head of Programs and Communications for the National Public Housing Museum, said the museum’s presence will likely boost traffic for other businesses in the neighborhood.

“By opening that Taylor Street side we’re hoping to really integrate with the community and work with community partners,” Glover said.

 

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