Last month I had the opportunity to hear author and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Associate Professor Audrey Petty talk about her book High Rise Stories: Voices From Chicago Public Housing at Chicago Story Week hosted by Columbia College. Petty’s compilation of stories from former residents of some of Chicago’s most notorious housing projects was released in 2013, but the stories are still compelling and relevant.
The first account in Petty’s High Rise Stories is about a woman who was forced to leave her apartment in Cabrini-Green because of demolitions. The end of her story had me in tears. It also awakened a notion I had never thought about before: The removal of Chicago’s housing projects furthered the diaspora experience for a marginalized people. The book opens with the story of Delores Wilson who lived the majority of her life, from 1958-2011 in Cabrini-Green. At 83-years-old she was one of hundreds transferred out of the housing project to other low-income or mixed-income housing developments. For Wilson, however, her move was full of loss. Her wedding pictures, vacation pictures, her husbands trophies were all gone because she had no choice but to leave them behind in the confusion of moving–not enough time; not enough boxes, not enough room in the moving trucks.
Everybody was moving in all directions. The housing office kind of steered you to where they wanted you to go. […] Quite a few of us headed to the Dearborn Homes, where I live now. My daughter’s right nearby. But we’re not all in the same building. The people I’ve known from Cabrini are all in different buildings. And when we see each other, it’s “Ohhh ahh!” Like we haven’t seen each other for a thousand years.
-Excerpt from Delores Wilson, High Rise Stories
Many others in the book express feelings of loss–the loss of children, spouses, siblings, opportunities, innocence–and yet none is as common among all the narrators as the feeling of displacement.
There are several accounts of violent, traumatic, saddening experiences expressed throughout the book. But there are also memories of kids playing, neighbors cooking food for one another, and mothers looking after each other’s children. For many of the people sharing their stories the sense of togetherness, even under difficult circumstances, changed when they were forced to move. Some say in the book that they were happy to see their housing project go. Some say they felt a deep sadness. But all were challenged to gain a sense of community elsewhere, somewhere outside of a place that, while brought trauma and loss, also brought camaraderie.
All of the acquaintances that you had over the years, to see ’em go, it’s like, they gone. You try to move on. In moving on you know, you don’t forget the people, but a few months removed from someone, your conversations change, certain things change. You try to talk, but eventually the connection slips away. You talk sparingly. We don’t have the camaraderie, that thing in common. […] Everyone’s sharing the same fears–We gonna be displaced, we gonna be out here. They putting us out of here, since we don’t have no jobs.
Excerpt from Lloyd “Peter” Haywood, High Rise Stories
High Rise Stories is a book everyone should read. The experiences of those featured in the book are unlike my own, yet I am enlightened and compelled to understand the system by which the book’s narrators feel rejected, displaced and unwanted. I think that most people see those who are different from themselves in one-dimensional terms without taking into consideration that all people are multifaceted. The voices in High Rise Stories are the wise, poetic, intelligent and observant thoughts and opinions of city workers to college graduates, the formerly incarcerated to activists.