Erected as part of the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA) and named after the nineteenth-century reformer, the Jane Addams Homes are located on Chicago’s Near West Side. Following the 1937 Housing Act, the Jane Addams Homes were the city’s first site for public housing. The development aimed to stimulate the post-Depression economy and improve the dilapidated housing conditions for impoverished immigrants in the Near West Side neighborhood. Built in 1938, the Jane Addams Homes consisted of 1,027 units spread across thirty-two buildings that faced one another, creating semi-enclosed courts of playgrounds and landscaped areas. The Addams Homes were only the beginning of the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) larger development known as the ABLA Homes, an acronym for four separate public housing projects: Addams, Brooks, Loomis, and Abbott.
Reflecting the public housing preference for low-rises during the 1930s, the Addams Homes were courtyard apartments of three to four stories, with some two-story row houses—a design that fit in with the nearby neighborhood. Unlike the housing the Addams Homes replaced, these new structures were fireproof. They were constructed of brick and the interiors featured concrete floors and asphalt tiles. Since only a few families shared each building entrance, the residents got to closely know each other. In addition to housing, the development offered a wide range of social services like childcare and employment advising. One of the unique features of the Homes was the Animal Court, an Art Deco animal sculpture garden designed by Edgar Miller. Figures of bulls and sheep of various sizes served as a playground for the residents’ children. A pool and fountain at the center of the garden were also areas of recreation and refreshment during the summer months.
At the time of the Addams Homes’ construction, the Near West Side was diverse and rapidly changing. No new housing had been built in the neighborhood since 1920, an area that had historically housed European immigrants but by 1940 included growing numbers of Black, Mexican, and Puerto Rican residents. Many buildings were deteriorated and there was shortage of quality housing in the area. This older housing stock was razed and replaced with public housing like the Addams Homes, which aimed to provide dwellers with better living conditions. However, the government did little to tackle other issues like unemployment or poverty in the area, so urban renewal did little to improve the general living conditions. Moreover, the Near West Side also saw the construction of three highways connecting the city center with the suburbs, which provided single-family housing mostly for white families and thus created a division between white and non-white neighborhoods. Between 1940 and 1970, 82 percent of the white population moved from the Near West Side to the suburbs. Chicago mayor Robert J. Daley and his political allies saw the Near West Side’s poor conditions and racial diversity as a threat to the economic viability of the nearby downtown.
Besides the rapid racial shift of the Near West Side itself, the PWA and CHA implemented racial segregation inside the development. Although the 1937 Housing Act did not mention race in its provisions, PWA projects issued the “neighborhood composition rule” whereby public housing sites retained the racial composition of the neighborhood before development—a policy that reinforced racial segregation in the city. The CHA utilized the rule to invite only thirty-five Black families to the Addams Homes in what otherwise was a 90 percent white development. Additionally, all of these Black families received apartments in just two buildings of the development.
Initially, the Addams Homes’ white tenants were working-class, two-parent households. Later, with more stringent income qualifications and with African Americans experiencing higher levels of poverty, tenants in the Addams Homes and other public housing sites were increasingly lower income and single-parent households who disproportionately relied on public assistance. These shifting demographics established a harmful stereotype that Black people were undeservingly receiving social aid. In turn, the stigma around public housing led non-Black and economically stable Black families to leave the Addams Homes if they could. Thus, by the late 1960s the Addams Homes housed a majority of low-income Black residents.
While the Addams Homes provided better quality housing compared to the buildings they replaced, several factors were key in their eventual deterioration and declining reputation. The CHA suffered from budget cuts in the 1970s, and coupled with CHA’s policy to use tenants' incomes for the maintenance of the sites, most of whom were low-income, the buildings fell into disrepair. The Addams Homes were also disregarded by public services like mail and trash collection, which contributed to the stigmatization of the development. Furthermore, most CHA sites struggled with a disproportionate number of youths which, coupled with limited economic and recreational activities, spurred gang violence—although not to the extent of the later high-rise public housing.
By the turn of the century, many public housing sites were in poor condition and were socially stigmatized as concentrators of poverty. During the 1990s, the Near West Side quickly started gentrifying, and wealthier neighbors called for the ABLA Homes to be demolished. For this reason, in 1999, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley announced his Plan for Transformation of Public Housing, marking the beginning of a paradigm shift in which public housing sites were redeveloped into mixed-income housing. Most of the adjacent ABLA Homes and all but one building of the Addams Homes were demolished. As of 2022, the Addams Homes site is slated to become a mixed-income development called Roosevelt Square, which will include 2,441 mixed-income units and 755 subsidized units. Thanks to ABLA resident activism, the last standing Addams Homes building will house the new National Public Housing Museum.
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