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U. of I. English professor and team document life in Chicago's public housing

Audrey Petty
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Sophia Nahli Allison

University of Illinois English professor Audrey Petty is the author of “High-Rise Stories: Voices From Chicago Public Housing.”

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11/13/2013 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568; rhodes8@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Growing up in Chicago’s Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood, Audrey Petty lived about two miles from the Chicago Housing Authority’s Robert Taylor Homes. Those 28 high-rises, arranged in horseshoe clusters along the Dan Ryan Expressway, contained more than 4,400 apartments, giving the complex the dubious title of largest public housing development in the nation. But though she could practically see the drab concrete towers from her doorstep, Petty regarded the Robert Taylor Homes as a foreign, mysterious and impenetrable enclave.

Cover of book
The book, published by McSweeney's, is part of its oral history series, Voice of Witness.

“For years, I would pass by there going to piano lessons, but I felt like they were places that were apart – that I would never get in there,” she said. “I was aware, through headline news, of tragic events and difficult conditions at Robert Taylor and other large high-rise developments – crime, drug sales, an underground economy – but they were places that I was really curious about.”

In 1999, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development required the Chicago Housing Authority to conduct an inventory and inspection of its projects. When most were labeled uninhabitable and scheduled for demolition, the city formulated a “Plan for Transformation” that promised the residents would be relocated to better housing in nicer neighborhoods. Petty – by this time an English professor, living in Urbana, Ill. – immediately decided to chronicle the stories of the high-rise diaspora.

“It was the PFT that made me feel this urgent desire to become better informed about this plan and what was happening to people,” Petty said.

That curiosity resulted in her book, “High-Rise Stories: Voices From Chicago Public Housing,” recently published by McSweeney’s as part of its oral history series, Voice of Witness. The book contains the personal narratives of a dozen former residents whom Petty and a team of U. of I. graduate students (Michael Burns, Eric Tanyavutti and Crystal Thomas) found by posting fliers in schools, libraries and social service agencies. The subjects range from a former gang member who could clean and reassemble guns by the age of 5 to the president of the Cabrini Green resident council, described by President George H.W. Bush as “a model for the nation.” They tell their stories in intimate, conversational tones – the result of Petty and her team conducting as many as 10 interviews with each person over a period of two years and distilling the transcripts into a 250-page volume.

“Each of these people could have their own book,” Petty said. “I’m just able to present the tip of the iceberg.”

Their stories include a complete inventory of horrors: elevators that didn’t work; stairwells with no lights; infestations of vermin, drug dealers and gangsters; abusive police; indifferent paramedics; the violent deaths of neighbors, friends and family members.

“One of the things that holds the whole book together is that people share stories of some sort of crisis – a human rights crisis they experienced while they lived in high-rise public housing,” Petty said.

But these same memories are commingled with recollections of roller skating, basketball, a drum and bugle corps and, for a while at least, an on-site library at Robert Taylor Homes. Neighbors often functioned as extended family members, babysitting for each other’s children and sharing holiday cooking. One narrator, “Dawn,” recalls creating stereo systems from discarded electronics found in the Cabrini-Green incinerator. She is now a professional disc jockey.

As Alex Kotlowitz, the author of the 1992 bestseller “There Are No Children Here” writes in the forward to Petty’s book: “Here were places marked by at times 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.”

Editor's note: To contact Audrey Petty, email anpetty@illinois.edu.

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