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Remembering the Projects

Desiree Cooper

Marc Sanchez

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Chicago public housing
(Laurie Stern)
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Most of the old Chicago public housing projects have been demolished, but some former residents are now embracing the friends and memories they made over the years, and the sometimes very trying years, they lived there. A few residents are helping to launch The Public Housing Museum, which is meant to be a national repository of public housing memories and learning.

Desiree Cooper: Sunny, you are raising money for the museum, both of you are. What is that like when you walk into a room and you approach people and say, "Hey, we are trying to raise money for a National Public Housing Museum"? Do you get the tilt of the head like, "Mmmm?"

Sunny Fischer: A lot of people do look at me kind of, "What, are you crazy?" And one man actually said to me, "Why do you want to build a memorial to unwed mothers?" And that is a perfect place to start the conversation, is to say well, "What do you mean" or "How many of us in this room where raised by a single parent and what happened to us and what do we think are some of the reasons for that?" And we can go into the policies - and that's one of the things the museum will do. And it will be a place where we can confront stereotypes; we can talk about issues of race and poverty.

Cooper: I think that America has an idea of what it meant to live in public housing, even if most of America never lived in public housing. What will surprise America about the stories that they will find at that museum?

Crystal Palmer: You'll find that they were normal people, first of all. And that those stories were actually other people's versions of what residents of public housing-- or myths--of what public housing was like. Like most communities, they have issues, but actually I enjoyed it. I lived there; I grew up there from 1968 to '89. And then when I moved there in '68, it was a wonderful place. It was beautiful, it was quiet, it was family oriented.

Cooper: How was that different in the '80s?

Palmer: Oh, that's when things started tumbling. I don't know what happened to the resources or whatever. The services started diminishing and people stopped caring. It just went downhill from there.

Cooper: Sonny, you also lived in public housing.

Fischer: Right.

Cooper: What was that like for you as a child?

Fischer: It was pretty similar to the way Crystal was describing it.

Cooper: When was this?

Fischer: This was in the '50s and early '60s. Many people were working, there were a lot of intact families. There were playgrounds and we had libraries. I went to first and second grade in the development, and the development itself was surrounded by middle class and working class homes. So we went to school with a very diverse group of kids. But I think that Crystal's point is that they were abandoned. The people were abandoned, the buildings were abandoned. They stopped making repairs.

Palmer: The residents didn't get the city services, such as the ambulance, the police department.

Fischer: I remember going into one of the high-rises. My father was a mailman, and I remember seeing all of the mailboxes pulled out of the walls-and it was sort of a symbol of not even being able to get your mail from your own home.

Cooper: Well, Crystal, you moved out of public housing and then you moved back in. You're currently in public housing. Why did you move back?

Palmer: I moved back because it was my home. It's where my connection is. I would not have want to move any other place if I had the opportunity, but back home.

Cooper: Can you talk to me a little bit more about that? I think that people might feel confusion about that--that if there is a chance to "move up and move out," that one would take that opportunity.

Palmer: Who says I haven't moved up? I'm a productive member of this society. I do a lot of community work. I've moved up. And then I look at the mixed-income community, when they tore down buildings, there are suburban people that are moving into the community, so I ask you have they "moved-up?" They [are] moving into our communities, so is it about where you live that you move up? Is it about that you are happy where you live?

Cooper: Sonny, if you could please paint a picture of the building that you want to house the National Public Housing Museum?

Fischer: Well, the building was part of a huge complex of 32 buildings that were the Jane Addams Homes. It was one of the first public housing developments in the country. Right now all of the buildings are down, except this one at 1322 West Taylor. It has wonderful little amenities, little balconies, really decent-sized rooms, terrific ventilation and wonderful light. Right now, it's boarded up and it has a demolition fence around it. We're trying very hard to save it for the museum.

Cooper: What exactly is worth saving in that building?

Fischer: We believe that what's worth saving, not only the building itself, but the stories of the people who lived there. About six or seven years ago, I was doing some work for a foundation in the city. I had to go to a library on the West Side, and in the library parking lot, there were three young girls--they were probably 11, 12, 13. And they were beating up a little kid, a boy who was about seven or eight, I think. A scrappy kid, he was doing the best he could but they were really pummeling him. I was bigger than they were, so I walked over to them and I stopped the fight. And they said to me, "Don't worry about him, he is from the projects."

That just hit me. Partly because I said, "I'm from the projects," and partly because it gave me a sense about the surrounding community. The surrounding community said that this kid didn't matter and that I, a stranger, somebody from the outside, would immediately say, "Oh, OK, well, he's from the projects, go ahead and keep beating him up."

One of things that we hope to do with the museum is to reframe what public housing was in the past, why it became what it did, and perhaps, the kind of responsibility that we have to take for all communities.

Palmer: And hopefully we can learn lessons from the past so we don't have to revisit them in the future.

Cooper: Well, Sunny and Crystal, I want to thank you for joining us.

Fischer: Thank you very much for your interest.

Palmer: Thank you very much for hearing our stories.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Tolnisia Z

    From Chicago, 01/04/2013

    I lived in Ida B. Wells as a kid. My mom lived there for 7 and a half years. I miss those days.

    I been trying to get into Oakwood Shores which is the new Ida B. for years now. But to no avail.

    I think CHA is planning on not housing the poor or low income anymore. They got to many people on the waitlist who really need housing to have all these vacant units. CHA is not where it is at I�m moving back to Minnesota where they take care of there people. HUD is looking into CHA taking money on vacant units so I know somebodys about to be fired and maybe CHA will start doing there jobs like opening up there waiting lists.

    Cha sucks. They only open up their waitlist every 10 years. It takes you 20 years just to get housing move to Minnesota that�s where you will get your help from. They city of Minneapolis is 100 times better than Chicago.

    Cha need to open up that waitlist for all housing in 2013. That�s a shame they got people waiting on housing when they got over 30,000 units open for rent. I see they doing an update 3 and 5 years after opening the waitlist for section 8 and public housing. They should have been did this. Cha also got in trouble with Hud too for taking money for empty units that could be housing women with kids or homeless people. Chicago wondering why so many people moving out of the city and state.

    By Tolnisia Zeigler

    From Chicago, IL, 01/04/2013

    85,000 people on the scattered site, senior housing, transitional public housing, and section 8. There are more than enough housing for people in the shelters and on the streets. Cha need to help people like they suppose too.

    By Bill Watson

    From Durham, NC, 07/26/2008

    In the 60s, I grew up next to public housing in Pittsburgh. While I'm saddened to see the neighborhoods flattened as the need for public housing remains, it deeply disturbed me to hear of Crystal's desire to remain in public housing. "Moving up" is moving out of public housing. Public housing is not to be aspired to, it's a safety net. Being productive generally involves paying one's way. In doing "community work" we need to distinguish between receiving aid and adding value to the community. I didn't hear any sense that Crystal could see that distinction and that saddens me.

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