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  • Telling the Story of Urbanization
  • Elizabeth Byrd Wood (bio)

It's probably a safe bet that city living today, if you take away Starbucks and Subway, is not too different from city living a century ago. People crowding the sidewalk on their way to work, shopping, or school; a mélange of grime, odors, and noise, crime (both big-time and merely annoying); and an ever-changing grab bag of people representing different cultures, races, ages, religions, languages, and income levels.

What is the best way to tell the story of cities and the people who lived there? A story that is both uplifting and shameful, a story of optimism and defeat, a story of grand visions and failed experiments. A story that continues to evolve today as cities absorb newcomers from all corners of the world.

Across the country, a handful of museums are using the power of place to tell the stories of urbanization. More than just cultural centers, these museums link the history of urban dwellers with the city where they settled. At the same time, these museums are creatively involving residents in telling their stories. These museums— housed in former tenements, hotels, and apartments—are bringing life to urban centers, reflecting the generational stories of residents, and giving them a sense of pride in their history and their city.

This article looks at three museums in three different cities— the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, and the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago—to explore their role in telling the complex stories of our nation's big cities.

History from the Heart

Most historic house museums have expanded their interpretation programs to tell a multi-layered version of the events that took place there. They have learned that today's visitors are equally interested—and maybe more so—in life below the stairs, or in the alley, or in the factory, as they are in life in the plantation house, [End Page 37] or the industrialist's mansion. Particularly in the case of these three urban museums, they are helping visitors understand the experiences of the working poor and immigrant families—their fears, their dreams, and their successes—the quintessential American story. Often museums are turning to the source and collecting the oral histories of the people who once lived there, and in some cases, who still live there.

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle's Chinatown-International District uses personal recollections to tell the stories of hardship and struggles with identity and acceptance. The museum is located in a former hotel where countless immigrants from Asia found a place of refuge. Interviews with former residents have revealed stories both poignant and at the same time uplifting. Debbie Louie relates the story of growing up in an apartment along the small alley that ran between the hotel and the neighboring building. As a girl she was invited to a sleepover, and the next day, when the mother offered to drive her home, Debbie says that she was too embarrassed to admit that she lived in an apartment in an alley and asked to be let off at the end of the street. Today, however, she can now say proudly that her home is a museum, and that her story is worth telling.

The term "public housing" means many things to many people. Former residents of these housing projects have rich stories to tell about growing up and living in these urban apartments. In Chicago, The National Public Housing Museum, which tells the story of subsidized housing, hasn't had its official opening yet, but its founders and the museum president are moving ahead full steam. Keith Magee, president and chief executive officer of the museum, explains that the idea for a museum jelled about 16 years ago, when the City of Chicago proposed demolishing a number of the city's public housing projects and replacing them with mixed-income neighborhoods. In the eyes of the city leaders, large public housing projects were part of the city's history they would just as soon forget...


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pp. 37-45
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