Six Questions — October 2, 2013, 8:00 am

High Rise Stories

Audrey Petty on the history of Chicago public housing, the intimacy of oral histories, and reconstructing demolished communities

Audrey Petty. © Sophia Nahli Allison

Audrey Petty. © Sophia Nahli Allison

In 2011, the last remaining tower at Cabrini-Green Homes, the most notorious of Chicago’s public-housing projects, was dismantled by crane and wrecking ball. The city breathed a collective sigh of relief, and the Chicago Housing Authority shifted its focus to building mixed-income developments as part of its plan for reform. Around the same time, writer Audrey Petty began to speak to the displaced residents of Cabrini-Green and nine other public-housing developments, recording their memories of lives spent in places Chicago wished to erase. She collected twelve of these interviews in the book High Rise Stories, recently released as part of the Voice of Witness series from McSweeney’s. I spoke with Petty and asked her six questions about the interviews, the people she met, and how the process changed her.

1. As a native Chicagoan, were you personally invested in collecting these stories, and did the project change how you identify with the city?

Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, communities like the Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, and Ida B. Wells were on my routes to other places: to piano lessons, Comiskey Park, my relatives’ houses, or downtown. As a child I was interested in the developments, and I also intuited that they were very separate from me; they were unto themselves. When I was very young, maybe seven or eight, there was a kid who lived in the Robert Taylor Homes who hung out with all the kids on my block. I never imagined I would go to his house; it never occurred to me that I would or I could. That weird tension was a big part of my consciousness.

As I came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, I learned through the media about the tragic and violent events that occurred in public-housing high-rises, which forged a distinct connection to those addresses. I felt equal measures curiosity and fear. When the buildings did come down, decades later, I felt their absence as a loss. I wanted to get closer to them somehow.

Three years after beginning the project, I feel more connected to the city. I see more patterns in Chicago’s history, and in things that are going on here now. And I’m more interested in the ground where I stand. Having grown up in a townhouse in Hyde Park, I kind of took my own home for granted. I didn’t think much about what existed before that house stood in that place. On the heels of my work in High Rise Stories, I’m starting to learn more about the history of my block, of my neighborhood. My childhood home was the product of someone’s else’s home being cleared out. All of this has become electric to me. 

2. Why did you choose to interview only former residents of public-housing developments, as opposed to people who were involved from other angles, such as employees of the Chicago Housing Authority or private-housing residents?

From the very start, I was determined that this book should exclusively feature the voices of residents. I was interested in talking to people who could reconstruct the places from the inside. Even though there’s a bigger picture here, involving complex relationships between other bodies, entities, and institutions, residents held an authority no one else did. I wanted to read their voices — not only what they said, but how they said it. 

From High Rise Stories:

“Not too long after my son got killed, must have been in the fall of ’91, I was at a benefit dinner, something to do with my community work, and this reporter came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you Ms. Wilson?’ When I said that I was, he said, ‘Aren’t you afraid of living in Cabrini with all this shooting and stuff?’ I said, ‘No. I even leave out at night and go to the store,’ which I did. I said, ‘Only time I’m afraid is when I’m outside of the community. In Cabrini, I’m just not afraid.’ It’s like I told my boss, ‘If I’m going to live somewhere all these years and be scared, I’m crazy.’ ”

—Dolores Wilson

3. Ben Austen’s story “The Last Tower,” in the May 2012 issue of Harper’s, emphasizes the strong sense of community experienced by public-housing residents and their mixed feelings about Cabrini-Green’s demolition, even as the event was trumpeted as progress. In High Rise Stories residents express similar sentiments. In what ways were their experiences positive?

When I started interviewing people, the way in for me initially was to start with questions like, “Talk about your apartment: What do you remember about it? What was the layout? Did you know your neighbors?” I hoped the answers would lead to more questions, but I wasn’t prepared for the deep complexity of what people shared, or the powerful mix of conflicting emotions they felt when they talked about their homes and their communities. One woman said, without sarcasm or bitterness, “I saw shootings, I saw people killed — but other than that it was lovely.” All of these emotions were possible simultaneously, and one didn’t cancel out the other.

Many people shared very positive memories with me of the hospitality and conviviality they enjoyed on their floors and in their buildings. As Chandra Bell, one of the narrators, put it, “All your kids play together. That’s when you become a big family. One of us might get a job and be like, ‘Hey neighbor, can you watch my kid?’ That’s how it went, and it was real nice.”

4. Do you see these narratives continuing in the tradition of the oral-history projects of Studs Terkel, the Works Progress Administration, and today’s Storycorps? Why do you think the simple act of listening and recording might resonate more powerfully than a conventional journalistic account? 

I most definitely think High Rise Stories continues in those traditions. I’m an avid Storycorps listener and always find myself amazed by what can be conveyed about a person through a three- or four-minute conversation — how a story can bring me to laughter or tears or discovery or surprise just that quickly. I also read Studs Terkel as I was aspiring to be a writer; he was a quintessential Chicagoan, and his passion and avidity inspired me. And I’d studied the WPA slave narratives in college and was bowled over by them. What lends oral history such power, I think, is its immediacy, and the intimacy that is forged between a speaker and a listener when the storyteller offers some personal truth that matters to them. 

5. How do these individual narratives fit into the larger historical narrative of Chicago?

The story of public housing is the city’s story. Where and how it was and wasn’t built in the 1950s and 1960s communicates a great deal about racial and class segregation here.  In the modern era, black people were often cordoned off or hemmed in, whether through redlining or restrictive covenants. In the 1940s, when veterans were returning from the war, black veterans were kept out of subsidized housing where white people lived. There were riots — a great deal of violence was inflicted on black people — to maintain the segregation of this type of public housing. In the late 1960s, when Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his efforts to the issue of lack of equal access to fair and decent housing, he moved with his family to Chicago’s West Side to raise awareness. When I was a kid in the 1970s, I didn’t know the term “white flight,” but I saw it firsthand, all over the city. Public housing was and still is populated by people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, but the mega-developments were built in black neighborhoods, and this was not coincidental.

The impetus for the book was the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation. After several decades of defunding, the developments were to be dismantled, and the conventional understanding was that this was a good thing, that this was reform. But when a system this big fails, it’s important to consider how and why it did. The reflex for many — “Let’s be done with this” — does a disservice to the truth that these were communities. Even now, in this moment, there are people who were displaced who have nowhere to live, and people who live under harsher conditions managed by the private sector. I hope this book communicates that the story is more complicated than people outside these communities understand, and that it’s not over.

6. Alex Kotlowitz writes in the book’s introduction, “With public housing gone, in some quarters there’s a notion that everyone’s made it, that poverty has gone out of fashion.” The Plan for Transformation’s demolition of public-housing high-rises has erased these formerly very visible towers from the landscape, and to some extent the people who lived there. What does the future hold for former CHA residents?

High Rise StoriesThe answer is as wide as the city limits. Most of the people I met rent in the city, in private-sector housing. Dolores Wilson moved to Dearborn Homes, the first public-housing development built in the city after World War II.  She’s active in her local residents’ council and on good terms with her neighbors, but she still returns to her home church back in her old neighborhood every Sunday. One of the narrators of High Rise Stories is homeless. He has lived in several halfway homes and his current situation is quite precarious. Another narrator was homeless when we met for our first interviews, but is now gainfully employed, engaged to be married, and living in a suburb. 

Two narrators live in new developments — mixed-income properties built as part of the Plan for Transformation. Another narrator, who rents on the South Side, plans to leave the city with her children after finishing college. I wanted High Rise Stories to not only document what was lost but to testify to what remains, positive and negative, and to the narrators’ resilience: the ways that these people took care of themselves, and the bonds between them that still exist with the buildings gone. Even separated by many miles, former residents remain connected through churches, schools, Facebook, and a yearly reunion picnic near where they once lived. They’re also bonded by experience, by memory and story.

Share
Single Page

More from Camille Bromley:

Conversation October 3, 2016, 11:00 am

Unofficial Stories

“The suffering cannot disappear without a trace, we need to understand how and why,” says Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel laureate in literature and author of Secondhand Time.

Weekly Review April 12, 2016, 1:32 pm

Weekly Review

Leaked documents reveal that heads of state around the world hide money in offshore accounts, NASA researchers report that climate change has altered the Earth’s wobble, and scientists find that touching the genitals of robots arouses humans.

Weekly Review December 15, 2015, 10:51 am

Weekly Review

An Oklahoma police officer is convicted of raping women while on patrol, Chinese officials accuse the Dalai Lama of sympathizing with the Islamic State, and a burglar hiding in a lake is eaten by an alligator 

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2019

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Wood Chipper·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

Article
Common Ground·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

Article
The Black Axe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

Article
Who Is She?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

Article
Murder Italian Style·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

After not making a public appearance for weeks and being rumored dead, the president of Turkmenistan appeared on state television and drove a rally car around The Gates of Hell, a crater of gas that has been burning since it was discovered in 1971.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today