Public housing in one of the most prosperous nations on Earth shouldn’t become the backdrop of a human rights crisis. And yet it is so—everyone knew it was for nearly as long as Chicago’s housing projects existed. “High Rise Stories,” compiled by Audrey Petty, tells of the pitfalls of the projects, straight from the men and women who lived there. Narratives are culled from interviews with people young and old, who once lived in the city’s now defunct high-rise housing projects.
Generally synonymous with gangs and ghettoes, “the projects” used to have an unwelcoming aura. To outsiders, it seemed as if too few people got out, and no one who could avoid them ever went in. Unfortunately, this was exactly what allowed the crisis to proliferate.
Donnell Furlow, one of the interviewees and a former resident of Rockwell Gardens, a Near West Side development taken down in 2006, might have said it best: “I didn’t think nobody really cared about what we went through in the projects.” Names like Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor Homes became (and still are) shorthand for institutionalized poverty and despair. But their former inhabitants have arresting and singular stories, narratives of joy, sorrow, loss, and redemption that are as important to the human catalogue as any. And now, after the demolition of the high rises and the forced diaspora that ensued, outsiders are finally beginning to listen. In a way, “High Rise Stories” represents a world slowly being rebuilt.
“You are invited inside,” Petty writes at the end of her introduction. In as many chapters, twelve different survivors of the high-rise projects do just that, sharing family histories and the difficulties inherent in their living situations, confiding ambitions and the ways these dreams were fostered or quashed. A team of interviewers, including Petty, collected the stories, which she later edited. During a panel at the Hull House Museum, Petty said she had envisioned a book containing the thoughts of the interviewees on public housing, but it turned out most of them wanted to talk about their families instead. They wanted to speak about whom they were proud of, whom they’d been disappointed by, whom they loved and how much. We get a collection of beautifully rendered portraits, from which individual personalities emerge.
A surprising theme across the interviews is the positive sense of community the speakers often felt in their homes, which, despite the evident volatility of the projects, made them ambivalent about finally leaving them behind. Dolores Wilson, age eighty-three, tells of how her son Michael used to beg to go to church with their neighbors, the Montanes family, who had “four or five” children themselves. When Wilson’s husband, a custodian at their home in Cabrini-Green, was transferred to a different building in the complex, the family had to move, Wilson “cried the whole time” at the prospect of leaving her other next-door neighbor, Queenie. Dolores and Queenie “were like sisters,” and Queenie’s entire family, along with some other “guys in the neighborhood,” helped the Wilsons transfer their possessions.
Another Cabrini resident, Paula Hawkins, described it as being “like a family reunion all the time.” She “knew nearly everyone in the building,” and had a neighbor named Carmen who was always making homemade ice cream next door. Several others describe children being left unattended, but just as many recount how easy it was to secure childcare in a community about as well connected and close-knit as the projects could be. The women, many of whom became mothers in their teens, often shared the same concerns. Extended families lived in close quarters, and multi-generational households were the norm. Hawkins says of her grandmother: “She stayed in our life, she was in our business, and I just thank her.”
Nevertheless, darkness plagued the buildings and the lives of their young people, and it is these sad tales that “High Rise Stories” tells most prominently. One of the most memorable accounts is that of Furlow, thirty-one, who didn’t realize anyone outside his community cared about public housing residents. His account is gripping; it shows how so much trouble could begin so easily. He speaks honestly about his inculcation into gang and drug culture at the hands of his older brother’s friends. He was eleven the first time he smoked a joint, he says. “I’ll come over there and peek around the couch at [his brother’s friends] and they’ll be like, ‘Hey, come here, lil nigga’…They give me the joint. I look at the joint. And I think, I’m going to do what you just did. I’m going to hit the joint. I’m gonna inhale it. I’m gonna exhale it.” By the time he was in high school Furlow was “learning how to clean guns, how to shoot a gun, how to hide a gun, how to bag up cocaine and how to shake dope.” “The streets” and his neighborhood were “the world to [him];” from the time he was “three years old, maybe four,” he knew no other.
Dawn Knight, forty-eight, had known another world. She tells the story of her family moving into the Robert Taylor Homes when she was thirteen. She “didn’t understand the elevator and the hallways smelling like urine, the writing on the walls, men just standing under the building. It was scary.” In 1984, her little brother was “shot dead in an elevator.” In fact, several interviewees recount taking the stairs day after day because the elevators were often broken or unsafe. Police were a constant presence but they were unlikely to interfere in violent encounters unless it was a matter of protecting their own. After a policeman was shot and killed in 1991, Knight recalls, officers conducted a door-to-door apartment search, but they did so in the wee hours of the morning and without warrants.
Sabrina Nixon, a former Cabrini-Green resident, put it this way: “The thing about ambulance and police at Cabrini is that when there were reports of shooting, they’d come eventually, but they didn’t come right away…[Shootings were] the norm, so to speak. I’m sure that’s how a lot of [the authorities] looked at it. ‘They’ll just kill each other off.’ They didn’t care.”
Attitudes like those toward the police officers and the general distance between the city apart and the rest of Chicago ring loudly throughout the narratives in “High Rise Stories.” “We just didn’t like outsiders,” Furlow says. Residents knew that the police, at least, “are always going to look at [people from the projects] as gang members or terrorists.” Knight remembers being asked by a reporter at one point which Robert Taylor building she lived in, and which was “the worst.” “This let me know,” Knight says, “how the outside world really saw us.” She later moved to Minneapolis, and was frightened to see a black man “hugged up” with a white woman, thinking the police were going to interfere. She had never seen an interracial couple before.
The book, of course, arrives in the wake of the Plan for Transformation, the Chicago Housing Authority’s initiative to dismantle the massive high-rises in favor of “Housing Choice Vouchers” (which subsidize rentals in the private market) and planned mixed-income housing. By 1998, when a vast number of Chicago’s public housing units failed viability inspection, the effects of what is known as “warehousing the poor” could no longer be ignored. “In so many critical ways, place matters in Chicago,” Petty writes. The intuition behind the plan and the vouchers is to give families the opportunity to occupy safer and more diverse communities: to alleviate, somewhat, the stranglehold of functional segregation, which continues to grip the city today.
Still, the accounts in “High Rise Stories” demonstrate that this, too, has not been without its problems, and that more attention is needed to help the projects’ former residents succeed. The resettlement process was fraught with its own small tragedies; Dolores Wilson describes how she was ordered to pack up and leave so hastily and with so little assistance that she wasn’t able to keep many personal mementoes, such as wedding pictures and trophies that her husband’s marching band had won. Ashley Cortland and Tiffany Tucker, like many other former project residents with Housing Choice Vouchers, moved out only to find their new buildings had been foreclosed on. For Tucker’s family, this happened “again and again.”
But probably the biggest dilemma caused by the scattering of the project communities is the loss of the few positive aspects of living there: the social bonds and resources that came from having family and friends so close at hand. Mixed-income communities are not inherently better at increasing all sources of opportunity. Lloyd “Peter” Haywood, a former resident of Stateway Gardens, reports that his new neighbors are unfriendly, and find him suspicious. After “figuring out CHA people were going to be living there,” one of them, a “white guy” of “a different class, different income,” put a “for sale” sign in his window. As for Stateway, Peter says it was “people helping people.”
People helping people—this is the simple mission of books like “High Rise Stories.” It may not be a social program or a housing subsidy, but the collection of interviews nevertheless offers something important. It encourages a dialogue, bringing people of different backgrounds together to listen and share. It validates the experience of those who, for a long time, have been disenfranchised and ignored. Perhaps now the outsiders will start to care a little