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Public Housing Museum’s ‘Everyday Objects’ exhibit spotlights fading communities

Milton Reed, an artist who lived in the Robert Taylor Homes 36 years, has a 6-by-9 painting of his signature black panther in a new Chicago Public Housing Museum exhibit. Reed made a name for himself in the 90s, painting the panther in residents' apartments throughout Taylor. | Richard Cahan/National Public Housing Museum

Milton Reed and Annie R. Smith-Stubenfield represent a public housing narrative we don’t often hear — certainly not in the ’80s and ’90s, when headlines spotlighted poverty, drugs and gangs in developments like Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor Homes.

Reed, who in 1961 moved into Taylor — once the nation’s largest development stretching miles down South State Street — was a muralist who made a name for himself in the ’90s, and a modest living for his wife and children, painting a signature black panther throughout the complex.

“It started in 1993. I drew a panther on somebody’s wall, and other people came to me, saying, ‘I want that on my wall, too.’ After I did about five, it spread word of mouth,” Reed said at the opening of a new exhibit at the National Public Housing Museum called “History Lessons: Everyday Objects from Chicago Public Housing.”

“Every week, about four different people wanted me to do panthers in their apartment, and before I knew it, I had painted panthers in almost every building,” said Reed, 63, whose entry in the exhibit is a black panther on a 6-by-9 canvas.

Smith-Stubenfield, whose single mother moved into the South Side Ida B. Wells development with her children in the late ’60s, has a camera collection in the exhibit. Some now antique, they represent a lifetime love of photography nurtured early by family and her neighbors in Wells.

“We moved in on March the 13th, 1967 — me and my sister and my mother. In 1968, my brother came home from the service and said, ‘I saw this camera in Germany. It’s for you,’ ” said Smith-Stubenfield, 63.

Annie R. Smith-Stubenfield, a photographer who lived in Ida B. Wells, off and on during 36 years, has a collection of cameras, some of them antique, in a new Chicago Public Housing Museum exhibit. Her lifetime love of photography was nurtured early by her family and neighbors in Wells. | Richard Cahan/National Public Housing Museum

“The only camera I had before then was a 126, a little Instamatic. After that, I did a bunch of photography. I loved that camera. Then in ’71, my father got me a Bigshot for Christmas,” she said. “What I would do is, if anybody had a baby, I would charge them $1 for a photograph. I actually made a couple of dollars off of that.”

The two are among some 20 current and former Chicago Housing Authority residents whose prized and ordinary possessions are featured in the exhibit, alongside their owners’ extraordinary stories.

Curated by Chicago photo-historian Richard Cahan, the exhibit runs through July 30 at the museum’s temporary home, 625 N. Kingsbury St. Its permanent home — in the last remaining building of CHA’s Jane Addams Homes, 1322 W. Taylor St. — will open next year.

Among the entries are:

* A championship boxing belt owned by Lee Roy “Solid Gold” Murphy, who lived in Taylor from 1972-1983 and won the International Boxing Federation Cruiserweight Title in ’84.

* A Marshall High School basketball sweater owned by Ned Lufrano, who lived in Addams from 1938-1952 and was a star guard on his Chicago Public Schools high-school team in the late ’40s and early ’50s.

* A leather motorcycle jacket owned by legendary community activist Marion Stamps, who lived in Cabrini-Green from the 1960s-1990s and helped organize the first and only successful nationwide rent strike against the U.S. Department of Housing and Development.

“The items run the gamut — from Lee Roy’s belt to a Pyrex container. It’s meant to give people a sense of public housing’s diversity,” Cahan said. “In many cases, residents wrote their own label. In some cases, I interviewed them and helped them. What makes this exhibit so unusual is that people were able to choose their own item to represent them and their community.”

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Advocating for their communities is the museum’s larger mission, launched 10 years ago as the CHA plowed through its Plan for Transformation, tearing down the dense developments in favor of mixed-income housing. The agency’s promise to residents to replace the lost low-income units remains unfulfilled.

“This began with the dream of public housing residents, who as they watched the buildings coming down realized they needed to save one last remaining building, in order for them to tell their stories, in order for people not to forget public housing existed,” executive director Lisa Yun Lee said.

“The objects represent the entire span of public housing in Chicago, from the very first complex built here in 1938, Jane Addams Homes, all the way to when the last buildings were coming down in Cabrini in 2011. The exhibit highlights the importance of everyday people, and tells a rich, nuanced, complex history. But it’s not just about the residents,” Lee said.

“The exhibit challenges our mainstream understanding of what public housing is, and what it represents. It’s really about the way people build community, build lives and thrive, despite extreme circumstances, and about our commitment in a democracy to the public good.”

About 300 people attended the May 30th opening of “History Lessons: Everyday Objects from Chicago Public Housing,” a new exhibit running through July at the Chicago Public Housing Museum, 625 N. Kingsbury. | Richard Cahan/National Public Housing Museum