Audrey Petty does a great and important thing with High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing: she tells the story of the inner-city and public housing but does so through the perspective of the residents. Too many books on this subject tend to focus on the statistics and social theory, leaving out the most important part: the people. With Petty’s book, there is the analysis of social, racial, and economic factors that contribute to the crime and poverty that marks the inner-city, but that analysis is done by the residents in their lively and thoughtful first-person narratives. By giving voice to the people who lived in Chicago’s public housing, Petty has constructed an oral history that cuts through theory and gives a much more complex and thorough history than most of the books written by social scientists and academics.
While one doesn’t have to be a Chicago native to appreciate all the details and trivia of the book, it helps. Growing up in Chicago in the 1980s, I was part of a larger group of people who looked askance at the Robert Taylor Homes or Cabrini-Green – two of the most famous (and at times infamous) housing projects in the city. There was an unwritten and oft-unspoken rule that if you don’t live in either, then you don’t go there. Because of this segregation, many Chicagoans didn’t know what life was like in Chicago housing projects, despite their presence in the city – that is many Chicagoans didn’t know much beyond the reports of crime, urban blight, drug sales, and gang activity that were presented on the evening news.
What these stories do is add more depth and complexity to the two-dimensional image that most will have of the inner-city. It would be a mistake to assume that the stories of urban blight and poverty are exaggerated or somehow untrue – each participant in the project attests to the way gang violence and drug addiction has affected his or her life; but the truth is that there are systematic rules in place that often contribute to a cycle of poverty and drug abuse that many in which many in the book found themselves ensnared. We read accounts of how individuals are forever marked by mistakes made, having trouble finding housing and work because of those past mistakes. We also read about parents having to make difficult choices in cutting contact with adult children with crime records in fear of losing housing. When looking at the rules that the Chicago Housing Authority enforce – particularly a ban on residents who have criminal records, one would assume that these kinds of rules ensure safety at the homes, but hearing these often-heartbreaking stories also confirms that these rules are often too narrow and confining, and don’t take into account unforeseeable events in someone’s life. For example, one gentleman has trouble finding housing because of a charge for a crime he didn’t commit (he was, literally, in the wrong place, at the wrong time – at a store during a robbery, and was rounded up with all the other young black men).
Each subject is given a few pages of uninterrupted space in which he or she shares memories of public housing. The stories are often sad, and filled with tragedy, but they also have moments of joy. Families and friends were often central to these communities, and children were raised in villages of communities, where adults would not only care for their own, but would help in rearing their friends’ kids, as well. To some, friends became family and when the bulldozers and the cranes leveled those buildings, not only were the projects lost, but the feeling of kinship and community also perished in the pile of stone and rubble. And while none of the stories are idealistic or naïve, they all do complicate the popular image of the inner-city marketed by a conservative media: an inner-city plagued by gun warfare, prostitution, and teenaged pregnancy.
When the city decided to destroy the housing projects and relocate the residents, many believed this would be a great step in ridding the city of urban blight. Many uninformed people thought these changes would benefit the CHA residents, as well. But the relocations didn’t go smoothly – many of the former residents couldn’t afford to hire movers, and when the buildings fell down, so did many of their family memorabilia. The moves also proved wrenching for many who lived for decades in their apartments (one subject believes his great-grandmother’s death was caused by being forced out of her home).
High Rise Stories tells the true story of gentrification – it’s not just pretty boutiques and cute coffee shops – people’s lives were uprooted from situations that they were forced in, to begin with. It’s a sad, but important story – and one that hasn’t been shared by the individuals who are affected most by the changes. We don’t hear these stories enough – these first-hand stories give readers a better view of the repercussions of displacement, relocation, poverty, and gentrification.
Click here to buy Audrey Petty’s High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing on amazon.com.