Conversation Starter: Library Exhibition Spotlights ‘Scourge’ of Eviction

When Anne Ducey, the Kansas City Public Library’s director of exhibits, got word a couple of years ago that a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the troubling rise in home evictions had become the inspiration for an immersive exhibition in Washington, D.C., she moved quickly.

The book was Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City. He’d spoken at the downtown Central Library shortly after its release in 2016, and the Library staged a subsequent series of town hall gatherings and discussions of the issue — helping to raise the consciousness of a city in which dozens of formal evictions were being filed each day, literally leaving thousands of people and their belongings on the street.

Ducey emailed a contact at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., the new exhibition’s home. Would it be going on the road? If so, she and the Library were interested in bringing it to Kansas City.

The answer was no, but . . .

“They were interested that I was interested,” Ducey remembers. “They probably got a lot of calls from people like me.”

The downtown Washington museum, which sits four blocks from the National Mall, ultimately was inspired to put the exhibition on tour. After initial stops in Milwaukee, Fresno and Anchorage, Evicted was scheduled to open at KCPL’s downtown Central Library in early May and remain on display through July 19 — subject to Coronavirus-related changes.

Too expansive for either of the Central Library’s two formal galleries, it would sprawl across the first-floor grand foyer, Kirk Hall.

The exhibition drew some 85,000 visitors in a little more than a year in Washington, among them Elizabeth Warren and a handful of her U.S. Senate colleagues, staffers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, city council members, and judges and attorneys from the District of Columbia’s landlord-tenant court — conveniently housed just across the street.

Evicted’s curator, Sarah Leavitt, won’t hazard a guess at its impact, at least in moving the needle on tenant rights and eviction controls.

“But I think we certainly changed some hearts,” she says. “That’s important.”

Leavitt worked closely with Desmond in creating the exhibition, which debuted in Washington in April 2018. The author, a MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient who now teaches sociology at Princeton University, revolved his book around the two years he spent embedded in two impoverished neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

What he found was a sobering fact of life: One of the biggest challenges for struggling residents was holding on to a place to live. Eviction was a persistent threat.

The exhibition illuminates that experience through photographs, video storytelling and spatial elements. A pallet of household goods typifies the personal effects removed from a home during eviction and piled ignominiously on the lawn or side of the street. Four different living spaces are discombobulated — walls not extending floor to ceiling, wallpaper and outlets on the outside rather than inside — suggesting the disruptive impact of eviction or even its prospect. Infographics spell out the scope of what many see as a growing social scourge.

A study by the Kansas City Eviction Project — a consortium of researchers, community organizers, attorneys and policymakers — combed Jackson County’s landlord-tenant court records from 1999 to 2017 and found that 42 formal evictions were filed per business day. That amounted to some 9,000 each year.

Race was a leading predictor, with impoverished African Americans disproportionately affected.

The results paralleled Desmond’s nationwide findings. “I really felt when I read his book that we needed to address home from a different angle — about the precariousness of home and about housing and stability in general,” says Leavitt, who cold-called Desmond with her idea for an exhibition.

From those who’d later visit it at the National Building Museum, “we got a lot of personal stories from people who’d experienced eviction and were interested and gratified to see their story told with some grace,” Leavitt says. “And we heard from a lot of people who didn’t know how big the problem was. They maybe had walked past an eviction, seen all the belongings on the street, but didn’t have any sense of the breadth of the crisis nationwide and . . . the lack of affordable housing in our cities.

“I think it opened up a lot of really interesting conversations.”

The Library looked to do that on two fronts. A separate exhibit in its first-floor Guldner Gallery was to offer a window into the lives of the working poor in the Kansas City area. Let America Be America Again, which takes its name and tenor from Langston Hughes’ powerful Depression-era poem, features photographs taken by 14 local fast-food and other low-wage workers, illuminating their familial relationships, activities at home and day-to-day living conditions.

It was scheduled to run through May 31.

–Steve Wieberg

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