Stories from the high rises

On the evening of Friday, January 17 about 50 people squeezed into the second floor of the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center for a panel discussion with Audrey Petty, editor of the critically acclaimed High Rise Stories, which debuted in September as the latest volume in McSweeney’s Voice of Witness Series.

Joining Petty in the cozy space full of historical photographs and quirky building models were Todd Palmer (Interim Executive Director of the National Public Housing Museum), Zada Johnson, (a professor from the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies at Northeastern Illinois University), Anthony Jackson (Chef of Staff for Illinois State Representative Ken Dunkin, who grew up in Cabrini-Green), Rashayla Marie Brown (Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs at SAIC), and Tyra Owens (Outreach coordinator for Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, who grew up in the Harold Ickes Homes). The panel was moderated by veteran Chicago journalist Monroe Anderson.

Petty’s book has been making waves in the literary and academic communities, as well as with general audiences since September. It is a compilation of oral histories from 12 former residents of Chicago’s various public housing developments, including high rises like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes.  As a first book of its kind devoted to public housing residents, it has generated a lot of excitement as a testament to so many lives who were for decades viewed almost exclusively through the media lens focused on violence, drugs and social disorder.

But the event on Friday night was extraordinary precisely because it hardly focused on Petty and the eminent panelists assembled to discuss her work. Within several minutes of the their introductions, the audience came alive and the evening turned into vocal and passionate debate among those who had themselves lived in the projects, worked there, or knew them from the surrounding communities.

For almost two hours, people shared their stories, discussed the politics surrounding public housing construction and the Plan for Transformation, and offered visions of how the African American community in Chicago can heal after decades of structural racism and institutional neglect followed by the painful dispersal of so many public housing neighborhoods. The panelists listened, asked questions, and occasionally chimed in themselves.

“I grew up in Cabrini-Green as well and I can tell you that initially it was a mixed income development and it was mixed race,” said one audience member. “I remember the Row Houses on Chicago Avenue had a lot of Italian grandmas in it. But see this is an issue of class because those people took that as a step up to move to another neighborhood…the blacks did not have that step up.”

A man who introduced himself as a former gang leader with the Blackstone Rangers, who also grew up in Cabrini-Green, brought up politics. Originally from Detroit, he arrived in Chicago to find that “the politics was so low down and dirty here…our politicians, they had a hidden agenda of why they built Robert Taylor, you have to understand that.” He mentioned the intentional segregation of African Americans to specific neighborhoods. “We need to get down to the real piece on this because if we don’t, we’ll skip over it again and twenty years from now we’ll be talking about the same thing.”

A former Chicago police officer whose beat included the Lake Michigan High-Rises (now Lake Parc Place) spoke about the lack of male role models for young men as the reason for disorder in public housing.  “Back in the 60s and the 70s there were mostly women raising families and they had restrictions on relationships with men, and that started the generation of young men growing up that didn’t have respect for men.”  This issue resonated  strongly with the audience, as more men stood up to speak about young men lacking mentors and turning to violence as a self-preservation strategy.  A man who works as a counselor in a juvenile detention facility said, “These boys are angry. They’ve been misrepresented, they’re misunderstood, and they’re pissed off about it.”

A man who works as a community organizer in Bronzeville asked how young African American men struggling to survive and thrive in Chicago could feel a sense of belonging in the community when frequently, the places their elders grew up – the Taylors, Cabrinis, Rockwells of the city – no longer exist.  While former residents from public housing communities used to regularly organize reunions, he said those have been disallowed in public parks.   “They are kind of like a lost tribe of people, excuse the word tribe, of people who don’t have a stake anywhere, you know? How do we give them a sense of where they came from when a lot of these places are torn down?”

“A lot of the problem is the drugs and the deterioration and overall the destruction and the relocation of entire communities, entire support groups,” Tyra Owens, one of the panelists chimed in. “Some people may not see it as that but that’s kind of what the projects were.” Another man, who grew up in the Ida B. Wells Homes added: “I remember the lack of resources and programs…The black male was prayed on by law enforcement. And so many of our black men are in prison today that lived in many of these communities.”

Not everyone was comfortable with the focus of the discussion shifting to male empowerment.  Panelist Rashayla Borwn pushed the audience to consider the realities of life for all African American youth.  She spoke frankly about the fact that many are growing up without fathers. “Well how can we create role models out of the people that are already in their lives? To me it’s a pretty problematic conversation to assume that men are going to be the savior of any particular community. It’s not inviting to women, obviously, but it’s also not realistic…That problem is not going to go away just by wishing it away.”

In addition to Anderson’s moderation of the questions and comments, Harold Lucas, the organizer of the event, added political commentary.  He urged the audience to think about the future and the potential transformation of the Bronzeville area into a tourist destination, a hub of commercial activity that would give life to the post-high rise South Side.  “I submit that we need to be forming LLPs and other partnerships to bring back the [sic] commercial and we need to have stronger partnerships with plutocratic universities like the University of Chicago which is growing like an amoeba.”

Though some challenged politicians in the audience – Illinois State Representatives Ken Dunkin (born and raised in Cabrini) and Kwame Raoul – to affect positive changes for the community, Lucas insisted that the changes had to begin with the constituents. “I don’t think it’s the politicians’ job. It is their job to legislate the policies that we create to emancipate ourselves.”

In what was probably the most powerful moment of the event, a man who had lived at the Robert Taylor Homes for 16 years (“did 16 years” in his words because “it was like a jail institution”), called out the panelists and organizers for not bringing in enough voices from the public housing world that was being so hotly debated.

“I did 16 years in Robert Taylor projects….I robbed three people a day, you understand what I’m sayin’? Drugs, whatever, you name it we did it. We had to survive.  And maybe you don’t know because you’ve never been in that position. Robert Taylor, Ickes, and the rest of the projects was never made for a family.  But men had to hide when a case worker came, when they saw the men’s shoes they would cut the woman off. So if you want to deal with issues, let’s deal with the issues. The issue was that it was never made for a family, so it was never made and never structured for unity, nor progress.  That’s why the resources weren’t there…But you can’t talk about the facts because really you’re talking from the outside in. And really I felt disrespected and insulted to come into a room that’s having a dialogue about the housing developments and none of you from there!”

As the evening wrapped up, the small crowd continued to buzz. People shared memories of the past and ideas for the future. Most of the panelists reflected joyfully on what transpired. “I think what the [Public Housing Museum] is about is what just happened.  It’s a forum to connect those of us who are not inside with those of us that are,” said Palmer.

“I wish we could have talked a little more about the book, because it really speaks to the fact that people from public housing are real people, these were real communities,” said Jackson. “The way that we were displaced treated us like we weren’t.”

“I’m honored to be here,” said Petty emphatically. “People talked about moving forward but I think what the project really taught me is the necessity to remember and the value in that, and the value in sharing stories. We can’t get the kind of knowledge that we need if we don’t listen to each other.”

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