Housing | Lit

Mythologies of Place

High-Risers author Ben Austen talks inspiration, writing style, and recording history

Jon Lowenstein

Adam Przybyl: So I know that you wrote an article about Cabrini-Green seven years ago, how did that turn into this book? Can you walk us through that?

Ben Austen: It’s two kinds of questions—a question between writers and also a question about the topic itself. So the topic itself: the reason that I wrote the Harper’s Magazine story is that it just seemed hugely significant. This is an important story and the disappearance of Cabrini-Green seemed momentous—what does it mean [for] this icon of the city, and really the nation, to disappear? Where are the people going? So that was the reason for the magazine story, and then [I’m] thinking as I’m digging in that there was more to tell; this is a much bigger story. This is not just an important Chicago story, but one of the most important Chicago stories, and you could really tell that the whole history of the city exists within it—and really the history of cities across the country. A magazine story is like living with somebody, and the book is like marriage. You cohabitate, and you see if it’s going to work out and if it’s [what] you want. You want to be part of this for years to come. This seemed like the one that grabbed me, and that I felt was timely and also running out of time as well. To tell a broader history, you would start losing resonance and people may be less inclined to talk after some time. So I dug in.

AP: You mentioned that it seemed to you that the story of Cabrini-Green was in some way indicative of a larger story about public housing across the country. And the subtitle of the book reflects that because it’s Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing. One thing that I was curious about: the focus was on Cabrini-Green, and I wondered if at some point you thought it would be a broader history involving many more case studies of other housing projects? What are your thoughts about how the book was going to be structured?

To be honest, the structure changed throughout. This is sort of the long writing process. I feel like the book does explain public housing nationally, even with the focus on Cabrini-Green. Meaning policy-wise, you understand why public housing was formed in the 1930s, how it developed in the 1940s, and how it turned into high-rise public housing in the 1950s. The slide of public housing for all the reasons that we could get into are true of Cabrini-Green, but they were a true of many other places, so you understand that and then move away from public housing starting in the 1990s. All of that is in there, [but] I did always think that the focus would be on Cabrini-Green.

[There is] this idea that within a certain building, or a seventy-acre housing complex, you understand all the reasons that Cabrini-Green came into being and all the reasons that it came undone. Within that, you understand how Chicago works and how inner cities work. And then you even understand this other fraught way that we come to think [about] those stories—this was also about the mythologizing of a place and the mythologizing of inner cities.

That’s all in there, and Cabrini-Green itself is the candidate because of its outsized mythology. It is this iconic place; for years, it wouldn’t even be referred to without this epithet, like infamous or notorious Cabrini-Green.

There’s another piece to this story too: I’m from Chicago and went to high school in Hyde Park and to the Ray school just a few blocks away. So growing up here, Cabrini-Green meant something to me and to people I knew. That thing you actually knew was this idea of some scary place, and I’m talking about other city kids who were from the South Side that [thought] this North Side place was foreign and other, and people talked about it as like worse than Robert Taylor Homes—worse than anywhere else. And so to experience that kind of mythology and to realize that I needed to investigate it: I had perpetuated it in some way; I was a part of it; I experienced it. So I started talking to people about their experiences—hundreds of residents, people who worked there, people who studied it, and people who worked for the city there.

Erisa Apantaku: In terms of structure and style, were there any influences? Because you blend narrative with the facts of what’s happening there, in a way that’s really interesting and really difficult, I would imagine.

Super difficult.

EA: Did you ever consider taking another approach, like doing commentary or analysis? What sort of influences pushed you more in the narrative direction?

So I think there are definitely a bunch of books that came out that are some of my favorite nonfiction books that I would love to be as good as, like Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about Mumbai, India. And there she takes it to a much further extreme where it’s only super immediate. The trickiest part was that I wasn’t actually there for all these things. So if I think of Alex Kotlowitz’s book There Are No Children Here, he is physically present for most of the reporting, so to tell it in that kind of novelistic way is—I wouldn’t say, easier. But it’s more fluid; it makes sense. How do you then weave in history or all this policy that I want to get in there as well? Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns is about the Black migration and one-third of it is coming to Chicago. It’s just a masterful book, written novelistically and wonderfully. There are many books. Nicholas Lemann’s book The Promised Land, also about Chicago, does something similar where it pulls out the history and also individual stories, and came out a couple of years ago.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser as well—she comes to Chicago, and the desire of the department store controlling her, the big societal changes, we’re all like that. We have free will but are constrained in certain ways. And I think when you’re poor, and when you’re relying on government aid, even more so, decisions that happen in Washington or at the Chicago Housing Authority office downtown affect you directly and your choices suddenly, like a dictate that comes down. All of this helped me think about it a little bit more; it inspired me, more than, say, I pulled it off.

There’s a fantastic academic book about the fall of public housing in Chicago called Blueprint for Disaster by D. Bradford Hunt. It’s wonderful; it’s so much. I leaned on it heavily. Same with Laurence Vail’s book[s] about public housing. But I’m not an academic, and this is the kind of story I want to tell. I think both the intimate, even granular, levels of people’s lives and the big sweep epic stuff—to me, that’s the history. It’s not just the policy big sweep stuff; it’s also how you get down to the people who were living and experiencing this.

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Listen to an extended version of this interview that aired on SSW Radio, the Weekly’s radio hour on WHPK:

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AP: There were definitely parts when I was really just taken aback by how much of a great story [it] was, especially some of the characters. There are a lot of moving moments..

Right. There are these four individuals whose lives make up a big chunk of this book, and then there is the bigger stuff that’s happening.

But let’s also go look at these rapping cops. You feel like you know Brother Bill. Let’s look at Candyman or the terrible tragic story of J.R.’s sister when she was abducted by a security guard—these stories which are just sort of circulating, and some of them are told by a lot of people, sometimes individually, [but] I had to cut some of them.

You know there’s this one moment when one of the slick boys, these cops, delivers a baby, and you’re like “what the…?” He feels so traumatized by being a police officer there that he can’t actually step on the land of Cabrini-Green—I met him there and he was standing just on the boundary like a dog with an electric leash. He was like, “Yeah, we have to go over here to talk” and he couldn’t even enter the land, the territory. He is called to one of the high-rises, and there’s a woman who says she will only speak to him because she knows him, and she’s nine-and-a-half months pregnant. She’s very pregnant and she’s like, “I’m having my baby.” And he has to walk her down the stairs because the elevator’s out of order, and she says as they get into the lobby “I’m having my baby right now.” And she lies down and takes off her stretchy maternity pants and he’s forced to deliver this baby. And this is Cabrini-Green. It’s a crowded high-rise, so like one hundred people come to watch and his hands are wet. He’s terrified. He doesn’t know what’s going on. Somebody says to him “Man, I didn’t know you guys delivered babies.”

And he had the nickname “21” for 21 Jump Street because he looked so young. The father of the child comes, and he had actually arrested him—the police officer 21 had arrested him at one point and put him away.

But he still embraced him. They are like, “We’re going to name the child after you,” but [the police officer] refused. He was like, “I don’t want you to do it.” And they didn’t. They named him after his father. But he had the same nickname—everyone called him 21, which is amazing.

It’s amazing because it’s a good story, but it’s also amazing about what constitutes a community.

AP: So having done all these interviews and all this research for the book, is there anything that you think could have saved Cabrini-Green from its fate, from its conditions, and then its ultimate demolition?

Yes. I mean, that’s a really complicated question. I think Cabrini-Green and public housing gets blamed for everything. But think about all the things that it experiences the worst of. If you think of the fortunes of cities, they experience extreme white flight and the disappearance of jobs. The industrial sector disappears from many inner cities, though the housing market opens up a little bit. So if you’re African-American and you’re working class, you suddenly have a choice whether to live in Cabrini-Green or Robert Taylor or somewhere else that before would have been closed off to you.

So the working population disappears. [But] it’s also the result of where the buildings were placed originally throughout Chicago—even in other cities, it was intentionally in neighborhoods that were already predominately African-American and often poor. Cabrini-Green is a weird exception, because it used to be one of the infamous slums when it was Italian and when it was Irish before.

So whether you could stop the downturn, it’s a result of all these factors. But also imagine Cabrini-Green—at one time, one of the managers said it had 20,000 people on just seventy acres—and how big that is. Think about all the amenities you need for that: parks and schools, good stores and hospitals, a trauma center, a swimming pool, and entertainment—all these things. If you had invested in both maintaining the buildings and in thinking about what a community needs, especially a low-income community, that would make a difference. Sure. But that’s not all—it [was] not funded fully from the start, but as the aversion to a sense of shared responsibility to social safety net programs becomes more rooted in the mainstream, there’s even less likelihood for that. So then when you get to the 1990s, where there’s suddenly this conversation about what we’re going to do to transform these neighborhoods, much of the conversation is about replacing the high-rises with mixed income developments. This comes down from Washington, and there are proposals that you could save some of these towers, but you might not have twenty-three towers together. That’s too many, in terms of concentrated poverty. But why not keep six spread out and we fill in between with different kinds of housing types. Those proposals are rejected.

And so the short answer to your question is, yeah, we could have done that. It would have met demand much better, and it would have still transformed those areas. But there’s [some who say], will people with money and people come to these areas if they have to live next to a tower? And so there wasn’t political will to do that. The political will was the opposite. Like to [them], these are just places that have become unmanageable—they have become the epicenter of crime and all that’s wrong with cities. Just get rid of them.

EA: So in terms of the landscape of writing about Chicago public housing, what would you want readers to take away from it?

The social fabric that existed there was much more full and complicated than people would have imagined from just the whole image of it. And then that changes how you think of what you want to do—there’s policy and there’s a level of empathy. The way it’s written very close to people’s lives and to experience them. And yet there’s a kind of struggle in the book. People are thwarted throughout, but the resilience, which is amazing, and l feel very lucky and honored to have people share that with me. There’s some idea that the poor are always acted upon and they have no agency, but that’s just not the case at all. And that that comes out throughout the book, and even within that agency to be constantly lied to at different times and mistreated. So that should shape how we think about policy.

EA: As I started reading this I was like, “Dolores, that sounds familiar.” And I realized it’s the same character in High-Rise Stories. And it was cool to see way more about her life in this one then, and that’s because that’s just a segment of her story. I’m curious where you found the main characters in this book.

Audrey Petty, who is the editor of High-Rise Stories and compiled it—it’s funny, she and I have known one another for many years. We both grew up in this neighborhood and went to high school together. She’s a couple of years ahead of me from Kenwood, and she’s still a dear friend. We were both working on these things, and she used, I think, my Harper’s story to think about some of these issues, and then when I started to think about a book, she was already far along in her book. And I said “Hey, who were your subjects from Cabrini-Green?” And there was this kind of nice reciprocal thing. I owe her a huge debt, Audrey Petty, for the work she did, and that book, for helping me with this book. She certainly read versions of it and helped me.

But the funny thing about writing a book like this is that you interview, say, one hundred people, and some people are just like natural storytellers. So J.R. Fleming, I called him one time as I was reporting the Harper’s story, and he was like, “Show up at the fieldhouse at Seward Park, which is the park at Cabrini-Green. I’ll be there tomorrow or Wednesday; it’s going to be crazy.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. I show up there and there was a meeting there like a monthly CHA meeting, and he’s leading a group of protesters and has a t-shirt that says “Anti-Eviction Campaign Chicago and Cape Town.”

I’m like, “Come on man. You have an organization that’s in Cape Town also?” It just seemed like total B.S., but it proved to be true. He had connected with someone from Soweto and Cape Town. He was someone who was like an outsized storyteller, and, as I reported and fact-checked, everything he said was all true.

I thought about Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, because it’s so textured in the lives of these people, and her characters are older at this point in their lives when she’s interviewing them, and that kind of makes sense—people who are retired might actually have more time to talk to a reporter and be kind of excited when you show up. And that helps; other people who were busy raising children and working—it’s harder to monopolize their time so much. I think that’s part of the weird reporting process.

AP: Last question—what’s next?

I’ll answer that in a funny way first, which is: When we were living in Brooklyn, my wife and me, and we just had two kids, we were sitting together with one of our neighbors one night, and he was with his wife, and she said to him, “David, if I die, I want you to remarry.” He looked at her like she was crazy—like, we’ve been married for nine years; I’m going to play the field for a while. So there’s a way. I used the analogy before—the book is like marriage and the magazine piece is like living together. I would do that—play the field. This is a terrible analogy, but I think about that story a lot, of David and his wife. But I’m working; I’m always working on magazine stories.

I’m working on something for Harper’s about community policing, and I’m working on something else for the [New York] Times Magazine about progressive district attorneys both here, with Kim Foxx, but also especially in Philadelphia with Larry Krasner. So these are the issues that I’m attracted to. But otherwise, it’s fun, when I go travel somewhere and I get to explore and learn.

Read Adam Przybyl’s review of High-Risers from our 2018 Housing Issue

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Thoughts on “Mythologies of Place”

  1. Great article, Erisa Apantaku and Adam Przbyl. I appreciated all the hot links to the Harper’s article, High Rise Stories, etc. as well as your providing the whole interview to listen to was helpful as well. I look forward to reading Ben Austen’s book and enjoyed learning about his writing process.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work!

    Dunreith

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