#949: A Poetry of Things

July 4th, 2018

“This Pyrex dish was usually used to make rice pudding or bread pudding. I didn’t eat either but the dish and I were bonded together. When my mother died, I wanted that bond to continue. The dish was a way to feel close to my mother.”

“I just liked the antique aspect of the sewing machine. One day I’ll have it oiled and fixed.”

“I remember when my mother first originally gave me this plane. The look of excitement and glee she had on her face was unexplainable.”

A metal airplane decoration. A Pyrex dish. A grandmother’s sewing machine and the “misty, moist memories” from a hose used in a project’s garden. This is the story of public housing.

For the story’s what, when, where: “History Lessons: Everyday Objects from Chicago Public Housing” is a temporary exhibit designed to perk up interest in the impending National Public Housing Museum, set to open in 2019. The free exhibit will run through July 30 along one wall of a shared arts space at 625 N. Kingsbury.

The final museum won’t be there, but in the last surviving building from the early public housing projects called the Jane Addams Homes.

The teaser exhibit “History Lessons” is about 15-20 minutes of diversion if you’re quick and joyless, but lingers on internally more than any collections of odds, ends and old junk by rights should.

“The driver and I got a reputation. We could strap and band and bundle and deliver 25,000 brights a day to all the buildings,” one caption over an old set of bricklaying tools read. “We did that for a year and a half until they got the Stateway Gardens built. Now it’s gone. I thought we did a beautiful job. In fact, I thought all those projects were well built.”

“With the Raiders she didn’t have to be on or be a leader. Here she could just be Marion,” read the caption for housing activist Marion Nzinga Stamps’ motorcycle jacket. “She was usually so domineering. Here she was just a woman–with a bunch of alpha males. They would buy her drinks and cater to her. This allowed her to be a femme fatale.”

“There is something about wearing a hat that demands respect,” read the caption for a section of wall exploding with ladies’ church hats.

As I walked through the tiny collection, alone but for the keyboard tapping of employees of the four nonprofits that share the arts space, it kept hitting me that this was just… stuff. These were boring, everyday, household things. Pyrex dishes and old tools. Toy planes and biker jackets.

The stories they told — collected “in workshops led by Audrey Petty and Nate Marshall, and as told to Richard Cahan” — are what gave these dishes and jackets life, what made this collection an exhibit.

If this is the exhibit, I can’t wait to see the museum.

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