Designs for a Different Life: On Audrey Petty’s High Rise Stories

In the spring of 2013, I was returning home from buying groceries when This American Life came on the radio. The episode was about a Chicago high school that had seen twenty-nine of its students shot in the last year alone. It was gripping, and later I found it was the first of a two-part series. It pained me to have to wait a week to find out the fate of the featured students. I emailed a link to the first episode to my friend in Guatemala and urged him to listen, as if bearing witness to these lives could somehow improve them.

In both episodes, the cycle of violence was hard to listen to and the circumstances of daily life horrifying, but the most devastating aspect of the narratives was that these adolescents didn’t have a choice. Growing up, many of us were likely encouraged by our parents and teachers to make wise choices, to say no to drugs, to stay in school, to study hard and apply ourselves. These clichés are familiar, but what happens when you don’t have those choices? What happens when there is no initiation, when you’re automatically assigned a gang based on your address? For some Chicago residents, particularly in the Englewood area, their street address or building number determines their gang affiliation for them. Once the hierarchy of the Gangster Disciplines (a notorious gang that once ruled the area) crumbled, dozens of smaller gangs emerged, some dominating individual blocks. Even police now admit it’s unheard of for teenagers in the area to remain unaffiliated with a gang.

The chance to learn more about the situation in Chicago presented itself when I was given the option to review Audrey Petty’s High Rise Stories: Voices From Chicago Public Housing. I immediately gravitated to the book, but little did I know how much it would impact my thinking in the days and nights that followed, and the subsequent conversations I ended up having with my family, coworkers, and people on social networks. Most people, myself included prior to reading the book, had no idea how many people had lived in Chicago public housing, nor could they fathom the hardships residents endured on a regular basis.

One of the more memorable stories a high rise resident shares is of her grandmother telling her to hide under the bed whenever shootings broke out. The image made me wonder how such war-like conditions still exist in parts of the United States.

High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing includes twelve narratives of former high rise residents compiled via interviews beginning in 2010 and conducted over a two-and-a-half-year span. The investigation led by Petty (the book’s editor) and her team coincided with the demolition of the last of the high rises, many of which had been part of Chicago’s landscape since the 1940s. Following the narratives is a timeline chronicling the Chicago House Authority’s history, a glossary of terms, and a handful of essays examining the architecture of the developments and the relocation experiences of former residents. The opening narratives recount life in the projects and relocation experiences following the demolition of the housing complexes. These dozen stories, and the essays contained in the appendices, are wrought with regret, gratitude, anger, ambivalence, and sometimes a lining of hope.

Alex Kotlowitz, a contributing reporter to the previously mentioned This American Life episodes, states in the book’s foreword, “[a]t its peak, Chicago public housing made up a city the size of Des Moines, Iowa: 200,000.” Dozens of high rises housed Chicago’s poorest residents. Featured on the television show Good Times, Cabrini-Green, one of the most famous housing developments, contained nearly 3,600 units and housed over 15,000 people. Another iconic development, Robert Taylor Homes, was made up of twenty-eight buildings, and at its peak housed over 27,000 people. Many residents lived the majority of their lives in these high rises, and not surprisingly, the destruction of these complexes proved life-altering for every person interviewed.

In order to grasp the magnitude of the high rises’ demolition, it’s essential to know their history. In 1938, the first three high rises were originally constructed to provide housing for war veterans returning to Chicago. These early developments were plagued by segregation, and in 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hansberry v. Lee that the city could not bar Hansberry—a black man—and his family from living in the Washington Park neighborhood. The ruling greatly impacted his daughter Lorraine, who drew from the experience and later wrote the famous play A Raisin in the Sun.

Many more developments were built in the fifties and sixties. In 1968, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, riots erupted in Chicago. “More than eleven people [were] killed, hundreds injured, two thousand arrested, and entire city blocks [were] destroyed by arson and looting.” Snipers emerged shortly after in the high rises, shooting randomly at residents from upper-story windows. In 1970, snipers fatally shot two Chicago police on patrol in the Cabrini-Green complex, further escalating tension between police and high rise residents. Concurrently, gangs and drugs began to dominate the complexes.

In addition to becoming conduits for gang violence, high rises became, according to D. Bradford Hunt, “managerial headaches.” Problems with trash chutes, heating, and elevator maintenance were difficult to resolve. In their personal stories, former residents complain of rodents, hallways that doubled as public bathrooms, elevator death traps, and gang shooting stand-offs that lasted days, often with innocent residents held hostage in their homes.

Many former residents voice distrust for law enforcement. Nearly all of them have senselessly lost family members or friends to gang violence, but few of these deaths were even investigated by the police. Dolores Wilson, eighty-three, recounts the death of her son that many claimed to have witnessed. She says detectives did not bother to investigate because the information surrounding his death was deemed “hearsay.”

The troubling narratives in High Rise Stories of dodging bullets and trying to survive in unsafe and unstable conditions echo those presented in the This American Life episodes. It’s clear that most residents had few or no choices. Dawn Knight, forty-eight, tells how she escaped the chaos of the housing complex by reading in her mother’s bedroom or in the library. Unfortunately, one day the library closed. She recalls, “After the library closed, I ended up hanging out with kids in my building. They got high on weed and before long, I was getting high, too.”

In 1995, Henry Cisneros, then the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, declared “public housing [was] on trial in Chicago.” That year 14,000 of nearly 40,000 housing units were condemned and the city of Chicago began formulating what would come to be known as the Plan for Transformation.

The Plan for Transformation’s objectives included the destruction of the high rises, issuance of housing vouchers for former high rise residents, construction of 25,000 new or renovated housing units, and a reduction of Chicago Housing Authority staff. In 2000, under the leadership of Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago began the multi-billion-dollar demolition of the high rises. Sadly, almost fifteen years later only about ninety percent of planned replacement housing had been built. Many former residents have been displaced and are still waiting to find suitable homes. By 2010, Chicago Housing Authority had lost contact with a staggering forty-seven percent of former high rise residents, making it impossible to assess their new living situations.

While Chicago Housing Authority issued vouchers to those displaced, these vouchers did not guarantee residents would secure homes. Tiffany Tucker, twenty-one, says: “The way it turned out, we ended up moving a whole lot. The buildings where we stayed went into foreclosure again and again. Each time we got notice, we’d only have a few months to relocate.” Tucker’s situation was common.

Some former high rise residents have integrated into mixed-income developments with varying degrees of comfort. To qualify for mixed-income housing, families must meet criteria such as being drug-free, having good credit, no police record, and no lapsed rent or utility payments. As expected, the acceptance rate into these developments is exceedingly low.

In fact, some former residents have rightly questioned the motives of the Chicago Housing Authority. Why create criteria that so few can meet? Why create fewer renovated housing units than previously existed? The implication is that the city is not interested in helping the very people it displaced. Many former high rise residents have strong opinions about this topic. Lloyd “Peter” Haywood, a forty-eight year-old bus driver, states simply, “I think that the Plan for Transformation is designed like everything else. It’s designed for you to fail.”

Not everyone agrees with Haywood’s assessment. Other residents acknowledged the rockiness of their relocation process but believe their lives to be steadily improving since leaving the projects. A few discussed how getting ahead will be easier for their children now that they aren’t steeped in gang culture. Their voices echo what all parents want and hope for their children: choices and opportunities.

Although High Rise Stories presents various angles of the housing predicament, Petty offers no clear-cut solutions. The problem is a complicated knot that can unravel several different ways. If, as I had hoped when forwarding the This American Life podcast to my friend in Guatemala, awareness is the first step in creating a solution, then High Rise Stories requires our collective attention.

Ursula Villarreal-Moura received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in CutBank, Emerson Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, NANO Fiction, DOGZPLOT, Similar Peaks, and elsewhere. She tweets at @Ursulaofthebook.