Press: Architect Magazine
Canopy designs the first purpose-built Native Housing Complex in Chicago
Article by Annie Howard for AIA Architect – Published June 3, 2022
In Chicago’s Horner Park, a grassy, multitiered earthen mound covered in unkempt, newly planted native grasses rises above the banks of the Chicago River.
The mound, which will be completed in 2023 and currently hides behind a temporary protective fence, is one of two Native mounds—along with its sibling mound, located 10 miles west in Schiller Woods—that have been erected on the North American continent in five centuries. As part of 4000N, a community-led proposal for an interpretive learning and recreation area, the mounds will serve as waypoints for pedestrians interested in learning more about the history of the communities between two of Chicago’s landmark rivers.
Less than a mile from Horner Park, another landmark structure is set to begin construction in the coming years: Chicago’s first purpose-built Native housing complex. While the building is still in the early financing stage, its organizers are moving forward with a vision for a mixed-use housing complex in the Albany Park neighborhood, which is itself a short distance from the American Indian Center of Chicago—the nation’s first urban Indian community site, first opened in 1953.
The density of Native activity in Chicago, and especially in the smaller geography of the city’s North and Northwest Sides, has made the city a vital site of Indigenous activism over the past 75 years. At various points across the centurieslong colonization of the United States, Chicago’s Native population dwindled for many years to just a few dozen people after the area served as tribal homelands of the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, Fox, Kickapoo, and Illinois Nations peoples for millennia. Now, these contemporary projects enact generations of Native resistance, coinciding with the 50-year anniversary of the Chicago Indian Village movement, a series of actions that protested poor housing conditions in the city. Taken together, the three projects open a new chapter in Indigenous adaptation and resistance to colonization, a story whose unfolding has grown in urgency in recent years.
Building New Native Housing
For contemporary Indigenous activists and organizers, the need to secure better housing for Native peoples has only grown more acute. There are an estimated 22,000 Native people residing in the city of Chicago and more than 65,000 in the Chicagoland area, representing over 150 tribal nations. The stress of housing insecurity has proved a persistent problem for Native Chicagoans. According to
a report produced by the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy, approximately half of American Indian/Alaska Native households in the city are rent burdened (paying more than 30% of their income on housing). Census data also found that AI/AN people were more than six times more likely than white people to be living in emergency shelters, suggesting the incredible toll of housing instability on the community.
For Pamala Silas, these figures have been a personal motivator in her work in the housing field. After eight years as the executive director of Metropolitan Tenants Organization, which helps Chicago tenants organize against unsafe housing conditions and landlord retaliation, she also led the National American Indian Housing Council, which serves as the housing authority for tribal lands. While the Housing Council is able to leverage funding for tribal housing because of a density of Native peoples in one place, the relative smallness of urban Native populations has made it difficult for urban Natives to find adequate housing resources.
“When I came back from NAIHC, I was revved up to do more urban housing, because so many tribes use the leverage of members on tribal lands, even though the majority don’t even live there,” says Silas, an enrolled member of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin and a descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin. “How are those resources translating to support Indigenous people elsewhere?”
Today, Silas chairs the board of Visionary Ventures, the organization working to create a new housing project in Albany Park. Together with its executive director and president Shelly Tucciarelli, and in collaboration with existing nonprofit housing developer Full Circle Communities, the organization has submitted plans for a project that will offer a mix of unit types, allowing for families to live alongside seniors. Significantly, the building will include a top-floor community space to allow for intertribal gatherings, as well as a 3,500-square-foot ground-floor commercial space that Visionary Ventures hopes to rent to an Indigenous-led business, further enriching opportunities for meaningful communal ties to build within a single space.
“It’s often taught that we’re no longer here, but the Native American community in Chicago is vibrant, and we want access and acknowledgment, just like everyone else,” says Tucchiarelli, a tribal member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. “Forty-five units doesn’t even touch the need that we have, but it’s a start.”