Interpreting the past, wrestling with the present

Chicago’s Jane Addams Homes opened in 1938 during the first wave of public housing construction by the federal government. Jane Addams, whose Hull House Settlement stood less than one mile away, encouraged New Deal officials to choose a site in her Near West Side neighborhood. The last remaining building from the complex, pictured above, has been slated to host the National Public Housing Museum.

Chicago’s Jane Addams Homes opened in 1938 during the first wave of public housing construction by the federal government. Jane Addams, whose Hull House Settlement stood less than one mile away, encouraged New Deal officials to choose a site in her Near West Side neighborhood. The last remaining building from the complex, pictured above, has been slated to host the National Public Housing Museum. Photo credit: National Public Housing Museum

Last year, I served as research resident at the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM), which focuses on the history of public housing across the country but especially in its home city of Chicago. The NPHM will one day occupy the last remaining building from the New Deal-era Jane Addams Homes in the Little Italy neighborhood. One weekend, as I volunteered at the museum’s information booth during Little Italy’s annual street festival, a passerby asked incredulously, “This is going to be a museum?” nodding to the NPHM’s future home. “But weren’t these projects?” Residents like this man had wondered for years what would happen to the boarded-up building and surrounding empty lots. Sensing an interpretive opportunity, I engaged him in a long conversation about the history of public housing and the museum’s goal of illuminating the racial and class assumptions that marked “The Projects.” I don’t think he walked away as a champion of the NPHM, but the museum exists in large part to stimulate just such conversations. Continue reading

Responding to Baltimore: A role for public historians? (Part 2)

Editors’ Note: Readers can find Part 1 here. This post continues a short list of what history, public and otherwise, as well as allied disciplines, can do in the face of events like those that have engulfed Baltimore.

Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson Museum, 1320 Eutaw Place, Baltimore. Restored by Morgan State University. Image credit: Baltimore Heritage.

Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson Museum, 1320 Eutaw Place, Baltimore. Restored by Morgan State University. Photo credit: Baltimore Heritage

Third, beyond documentation, history can support change in the present. History is rarely a direct catalyst for change–that comes from social movements. But it can be part of a public conversation that brings attention to the need for change, and it can serve as a means of empowering change-makers. The work of historians and our disciplinary allies can also inform policy, but we must research topics that are relevant to contemporary concerns and present our research in accessible ways. Public historians are at the forefront of these practices. Continue reading

Responding to Baltimore: A role for public historians? (Part 1)

Protest at the Baltimore Police Department Western District building at N. Mount St. and Riggs Ave. Photo credit: Veggies, Wikimedia Commons.

Freddie Gray protest at the Baltimore Police Department Western District building at N. Mount St. and Riggs Ave. Photo credit: Veggies, Wikimedia Commons

Events in Baltimore during the last couple of weeks following the death of Freddie Gray apparently after a questionable arrest have precipitated a great deal of commentary, ranging from the thoughtful to the bloviating. Likewise, interest in a more activist, civically engaged public history has been generating considerable discussion, both descriptive and hortatory. In an effort to add something useful to the discussion, I offer a short list of what I believe history, public and otherwise, as well as allied disciplines, can do in the face of events like those that have engulfed Baltimore. Continue reading

Hardball history: Knowing the people’s history requires being on their side

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Project narrator David Campbell explains to the media in August 2002 why he will not leave his encampment, known as Camelot, while the city bulldozers wait to move in. Photo credit: Steve Cagan. Used with permission from the collection of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

On May 30, 1995, wearing an orange construction helmet, I stood behind a makeshift barricade on E. 13th Street in New York City. Hundreds of squatters faced off against larger numbers of riot police who were armed with a tank and supported by snipers on the surrounding buildings. They had come to evict people from five buildings, and as they moved in, we locked arms to prevent them from gaining entrance. One by one they arrested us and dragged us away as the media reported the event live throughout the day. While we lost the buildings and over one hundred people lost their homes, the action paved the way for the remaining squats in the neighborhood to become legally recognized.

We had a sense we were making history, putting our mark on a long tradition of radical activism in the community. It was a history told though stories on park benches; documented in old photographs; archived in personal collections of dog-eared papers, yellowed flyers, and ‘zines; and memorialized with graffiti and punk anthems. The history was sustained by the elders, who had little materially to show from life, but captivated the attention of irreverent younger people who affectionately heard their stories as a boast and a challenge. To make history, we needed to know the history. Knowing the history necessitated knowing the people and knowing the people required being on their side. Continue reading

Fragile history in a gentrifying neighborhood

1.Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo by the author.

Valetta Anderson at an Atlanta Studies Network event in 2014. Photo credit:  David Rotenstein

Over the past few years, I have been writing about gentrification and how it intersects with history in an Atlanta, Georgia, suburb. Twenty-five months and more than 50 interviews after I started talking with people and documenting neighborhood change in the Oakhurst area of Decatur, I met playwright Valetta Anderson, who works at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center. In 2008, Anderson’s play about gentrification in her neighborhood, Hallelujah Street Blues, had been performed during the 2008 National Black Arts Festival. A Chicago native, Anderson had lived in Oakhurst for 18 years and was a participant in one of Decatur’s first public gentrification battles when she and a handful of neighbors sued the city in 2003 over a proposed property rezoning and townhouse development. The experience became Hallelujah Street Blues, a unique critical commentary on Decatur from an African American writer.

Yet no one had mentioned the play in any of the conversations I had with neighborhood residents. Nor did it appear in the neighborhood’s listserv; the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association’s monthly newsletter The Leaflet; or the Decatur Focus, a bimonthly magazine published by the city. The play had actually been staged in Decatur before its debut at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, and it received some press attention during its downtown production, including a profile of Anderson in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a review in Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s long-lived alt-weekly paper. But it seemed strangely invisible–or at least submerged–in Decatur community memory. Its seeming erasure has led me to new questions about storytelling as a window on the recent past and a barometer for community values.  Continue reading