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Building Museum Exhibit Chronicles Scourge Of Evictions, Homelessness


You know, it's pretty rare for a book about a wrenching social problem to read like great literature. But when "Evicted: Poverty And Profit In The American City" came out in 2016, it won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur genius grant for its author. And now Matthew Desmond can add curator to his list of achievements. A new exhibit at Washington, D.C.'s, National Building Museum is based on his book. And NPR's Neda Ulaby stopped by.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Like a lot of people who've read "Evicted," curator Sarah Leavitt gets teary when she talks about it. Levitt was that moved by its stories of Milwaukee families struggling to stay in low-income housing. When she finished it, she thought...

SARAH LEAVITT: This is a story that I needed to help tell, that this museum needed to help tell.

ULABY: Over the years, Leavitt had curated plenty of exhibitions about houses, but never one about people getting kicked out of them. More than two million Americans get eviction notices each year. Leavitt imagined a show with small houses you could really enter. But each one seems somehow wrong, with missing roofs or walls.

LEAVITT: It's half gone. It's half empty. The house isn't there anymore. It's not providing that shelter and support for the family.

ULABY: Leavitt emailed author Matthew Desmond, who was thrilled by the chance to help interpret his book in a three-dimensional, tactile way.

MATTHEW DESMOND: I've been on dozens of eviction moves with sheriffs and movers and landlords. And, you know, seeing what gets piled on the sidewalk is moving and telling - you know, when you see a half-eaten birthday cake or kids' things.

ULABY: So he asked her to make sure the museum showed that kind of stuff that gets left on the street and videos of real people who've lived through evictions.


DESTINY: My name is Destiny (ph). I'm a working mom.

ULABY: People like a working mom whose job cut down her hours. Then she got fined for being five days late with the rent. Less than a week after that came the eviction notice.


DESTINY: It crushes you, but you got to keep moving.

ULABY: The Building Museum exhibition relies on Matthew Desmond's data. One wall's covered with cardboard moving boxes in the shape of the U.S. Each stands for a different state. Their size reflects the number of evictions filed in a recent year.

What's the state with the most evictions?

LEAVITT: Georgia.

ULABY: Curator Sarah Leavitt says the post-recession housing crisis hit the Southeast especially hard due to high rents, stagnant incomes and limited government help. In Georgia, more than 200,000 eviction notices were filed back in 2015. And in Maryland?

JOHN JONES: One hundred thirty-three thousand, eight hundred thirty-two

ULABY: John Jones (ph), who's from Maryland, visited the exhibit "Eviction" after reading the book.

JONES: It's heavy.

ULABY: Jones was struck by wall text explaining eviction cases in Maryland courts.

JONES: The average case receives only several seconds of attention in the courts.


UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: The first order of business shall be the call of the list of cases.

ULABY: That's video from a real eviction court in Camden, N.J., says Matthew Desmond.

DESMOND: That really gives you a sense of the chaos of eviction, how many kids are in eviction court.

ULABY: And he wants it to leave you thinking.

DESMOND: This is not an institution of justice. This is not a place that they go to have their voice heard. This is a place they go to be processed.

ULABY: On the Building Museum walls hang eviction notices from all over the country.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: There's a knock on the door.

ULABY: With wall text read here by an actor.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Whether or not the belongings are packed, the kids are ready or the new plan is put in place, it no longer matters. The eviction has begun.

ULABY: In an epidemic that's hurt cities, suburbs, rural areas and towns, everyone is affected, the exhibit says, through schools, workplaces and public health.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: There's a knock on the door. It's time.

ULABY: Evictions used to be rare. The exhibit at the Building Museum ends by reminding visitors this is a fixable problem. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIUS ASTON'S "TRIESTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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