Author finds value in individuals’ stories regarding CHA residency, displacement
By Kevinisha Walker
Although many of Chicago’s public housing structures are no longer standing, the author of “High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing” says that many of the city’s former public housing residents reminisce about those homes as if they were never demolished.
“[Several] years after demolition, Chicago Housing Authority residents know these homes by heart,” said Audrey Petty, author of “High Rise Stories.”
Petty spoke to an audience in Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery last week as part of the MFA in Creative Writing Program Reading Series.
Petty, an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood.
The English professor had an upper-middle class upbringing and said that she initially viewed Robert Taylor Homes, the CHA public housing in Bronzeville, as just the building one sees from the highway headed out of town.
“I had a pinhole perception initially,” Petty said.
But after talking to people from those housing structures, Petty said she saw her view exploding.
While her initial views on public housing caused her to have an “over there” mentality, Petty said she still somehow felt connected to those buildings because she passed by some of them every day.
In addition to speaking with former residents of the Robert Taylor Homes, Petty spoke with former residents of Stateway Gardens, Rockwell Gardens, Grace Abbott Homes and Cabrini-Green. Many of those buildings were knocked down in the 90s.
Twelve people were interviewed in total for the book. She said she had to speak with residents multiple times, as one interview session didn’t always suffice.
“That was the hard work, boiling everything down,” Petty said. “I tried to think about what [the residents] really wanted to get out.”
During her Gage Gallery reading, Petty spent much of her time reading excerpts from “High Rise Stories,” a book that “provides a space for people whose experiences are usually treated with a curiosity, at best, and, at worst, a hard lesson learned by someone other than themselves,” said Christian Tebordo, director of the MFA in Creative Writing Program.
In a soft, contemplative voice, Petty described the everyday life of former Cabrini-Green resident Paula Hawkins, a cab dispatcher, student, mother and grandmother. But she was a child of the Cabrini-Green housing project, too.
Petty went on to talk about Hawkins’ church upbringing and closeness to her family.
After talking to these residents, Petty said after awhile “[those conversations] made her feel like a citizen.”
Petty spoke with several other, former public housing residents. Many of them have created Facebook pages for their respective public housing structures to keep in touch with old neighbors and friends, Petty said. “Among the residents, there was a sense of longing that I didn’t expect.”
While Petty’s book discusses public housing demolition and its effects on residents, it doesn’t go into detail on why public housing was demolished.
Petty, who admitted that she is not a historian, said that public housing was eliminated “in part, because there was a national kind of inventory that Housing and Urban Development conducted to look at buildings around the country to see whether they were viable or not.”
Later, Petty said HUD decided to eliminate the buildings because they were no longer sound.
HUD took over the public housing structures back in 1996, when the infrastructures became neglected and high concentrations of poverty became severe, according to CHA’s website.
But in 2000, then Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley decided to take control of CHA again and drafted the Plan for Transformation.
As stated on thecha.org, “The ambitious plan called for the demolition of notorious high-rise developments, the comprehensive rehabilitation of all the other scattered-site, senior and lower-density family properties, and the construction of new mixed-income/mixed-finance developments.”
Petty said that plan was the largest public housing development venture in the United States and that it reinforced trends in other cities, including New Orleans and Atlanta.
“The public housing structures were demolished and replaced with voucher distribution programs and limited access to mixed income developments,” Petty said. “The CHA promised impacted CHA residents and the city at large a fresh start.”
But unfortunately for the residents, the outcomes meant displacement, multiple moves and homelessness, Petty said.
It took Petty three years to complete “High Rise Stories.” Although she gave the audience a snippet of why the buildings were demolished, she said her ultimate goal was to tell the residents’ stories.
“Stories matter. They are human currency.”