Chicago has a history of obliterating its history. Significant buildings fall to the wrecking ball for parking lots, and entire swaths of the cityscape are bulldozed by economic forces like deindustrialization and gentrification, and political movements like “urban renewal.”
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Such has repeatedly been the fate of Chicago's many minority neighborhoods: Puerto Ricans were gentrified from Lincoln Park to Humboldt Park; the Chinese fled the South Loop for what is now Chinatown. Most starkly, historically African-American South and West Side neighborhoods have undergone repeated transformations. From the horrific slums caused by overcrowding and segregation, to vast expansion during desegregation (and attendant white flight); from the construction of massive Chicago Housing Authority high-rise complexes to the demolition of these complexes in the CHA's recent "Plan for Transformation," no other Chicagoans have endured as much conflict, marginalization and dislocation.
Yet Chicago's African-American community has had powerful voices speak for it: Bronzeville is long gone, but it endures in the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, the fiction of Richard Wright and the drama of Lorraine Hansberry. The textual city that writers build with words preserves what the politicians and businessmen of the actual city tear down.
With Audrey Petty's new oral history, "High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing," a new chapter in that textual preservation project begins.
Few people would want to preserve what Chicago's high-rise public housing had become. As Alex Kotlowitz writes in his introduction, "The high-rises were structures simply too massive, too ignored, and too underfunded to become places where people could thrive. Indeed, at times their very existence seemed like a crime against humanity."
We forget at our peril, though, three things: First, the slums that the high-rise housing replaced were another sort of horror. African-Americans were forced to live in decayed housing stock, abandoned by whites fleeing blacks, owned by slumlords delighted to profiteer without meeting basic human needs for clean air, water, heat or sanitation. Politicians — white and black alike — could and did ignore city services such as garbage pickup, street maintenance and other things more powerful groups took for granted as their birthright.
Second, we must recall that high-rise public housing fit a certain Modernist architectural aesthetic, the tower-in-a-plaza, that was heralded (wrongly) as the future of cities by architects such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. So, at the moment in time when these high-rises were proposed, they seemed a good thing: Replace horrific slums with new construction and build the cutting-edge city for even its poorest residents.
But the politics of race in Chicago ensured that utopian visions would degenerate into vertical ghettos. As Mike Royko wrote in 1970, upon the shootings of two police officers at Cabrini-Green, "the high-rises were the most practical 'land use,' which was another way of saying that going up was the best way to put the most blacks into the smallest space." Despite federal laws mandating that public housing be spread throughout the city and be racially integrated, aldermanic power kept most of the projects in black neighborhoods, those in white neighborhoods mostly low-rise and lily-white. The projects often cut off the old street grid, and they lacked the workplaces and commercial streets that make a neighborhood cohere. The worst of the projects loomed like giant forbidding walls or malignant fortresses, dividing the city visually as well as along lines of race and class.
Now, with the projects razed, Petty's powerful book reminds us of the third thing we, as a city, must recall if we are to be honest about our history and who we are today. To quote Kotlowitz again:
(H)ere's the other thing about high-rise public housing: these were rich, vital neighborhoods. It was, to be sure, an odd paradox. Here were places marked at times by utterly inhuman conditions, and yet residents considered these buildings home. Tenants in the high-rises often felt they belonged to something — they were among family and friends, and they had neighbors to lean on.
The 11 former residents of high-rises who speak in this book exhibit all the tangled realities of this paradox. Over numerous interviews spanning more than two years, Petty and her team of interviewers and transcribers created "a novelistic level of detail and a birth-to-now chronologized scope in order to portray narrators as individuals in all their complexity, rather than as case studies."
They have succeeded, bringing us into the projects through these stories.
The timeline regarding public housing history and other materials in the book's six appendices will become essential historical resources. But the book's primary value comes from the narratives of former CHA tenants. The range of speakers exemplifies the diversity of people who formerly lived in the projects, from ex-cons trying to straighten out their lives to youthful idealists.
Lloyd "Peter" Haywood speaks with compelling honesty when he says, "There were quite a number of years after high school when all I basically did was gang-bang. It's a period I don't really like to talk about because I don't care for it. I had lived running the streets." He continues with disarming clarity to express a life challenge that the vast majority of Chicagoans will never experience: "After I was shot, I was trying just to find a way to be normal." The prevalence of inter-gang violence in the CHA high-rises helped to create the image of the projects as essentially lawless, utterly unlike other parts of the city.
But like other Chicago neighborhoods, the projects fostered deep human connections as well. Paula Hawkins tells how during her childhood "I knew everyone in the building. All the ladies helped out each other. Our neighbor Carmen, on the first floor, used to make this delicious homemade ice cream. Living there was like a family reunion all the time. All the kids would play on the porch." Amid gang wars, official neglect, crime and poverty, children nonetheless played on the porch, and mothers made ice cream for their friends.
Perhaps the most compelling voice belongs to 83-year-old Dolores Wilson, whose family was one of the first to move into Cabrini-Green. She was also one of the last residents to be forced to move out, and her experience in the projects tracks this world from utopian hope to utter ruin.
Wilson worked for the city, and her husband became a custodian in the projects, an organizer of sports leagues and musical groups. Despite the violence (one of her sons was killed by a sniper), she says, she never felt afraid in Cabrini, and she takes Chicago's media to task for misrepresenting her community: "What got to me was the reporters didn't put down no address in their stories. Cabrini is a big neighborhood, from Halsted down to Sedgwick."
Cabrini-Green and the rest of the CHA's former high-rise projects were big neighborhoods in the brightest and darkest corners of our urban imagination as well as on the grid of the city's streets. This invaluable book will help its readers get beyond stereotypes and pat answers to grapple with the paradoxes these places represented and the complex humanity of the people who lived there.
Bill Savage is distinguished senior lecturer at Northwestern University.
"High Rise Stories"
Edited by Audrey Petty, introduction by Alex Kotlowitz, McSweeney's, 256 pages, $16