In this presentation, Audrey Petty will explore her work compiling and editing High Rise Stories, an oral history in which narrators describe their lives in Chicago’s now-demolished high rises. These particular high rises were among the largest public housing complexes in the United States and home to predominantly Black communities. Defunded by city, state, and federal governments over the course of the 1970s forward, high rise public housing was chronically neglected and mismanaged and many were ultimately torn down as part of redevelopment projects. High Rise Stories’ narratives of community, displacement, and survival amplify the experiences of many who have long been ignored, but whose hopes and struggles exist firmly at the heart of our national identity.
Below you’ll find the graphic recording, video, and transcript from “’We the landmarks’: reflections on High Rise Stories” presented by Audrey Petty on September 20th, 2023.
About the presenter
Audrey Petty is a writer and educator from Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, Oxford American, Poetry, Callaloo, Southern Review, The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook (Belt) and the Best Food Writing anthology. She has also served as guest editor of a recent Great Migration issue of Gravy magazine and as the nonfiction editor at Ninth Letter magazine.
About the series
Shareable is partnering with Tufts University on this special series hosted by professor Julian Agyeman (Co-chair of Shareable’s Board) and Cities@Tufts. Initially designed for Tufts students, faculty, and alumni, the colloquium has been opened up to the public with the support of Shareable, and funding from the Barr Foundation, the Shift Foundation, and The Kresge Foundation.
Cities@Tufts Lectures explores the impact of urban planning on our communities and the opportunities to design for greater equity and justice.
Register to participate in future Cities@Tufts events here.
“’We the landmarks’: reflections on High Rise Stories Transcript
[The timestamps in the transcript correspond with the video version of this lecture.]
0:00:00.6 Julian Agyeman: Welcome to the first Cities@Tufts virtual colloquium of ’23, ’24. I’m Professor Julian Agyeman and with my research assistants, Deandre Boyle and Muram Bacare, and our partners Shareable and the Barr Foundation, we organize Cities@Tufts as a cross-disciplinary academic initiative which recognizes Tufts University as a leader in urban studies, urban planning and sustainability issues. We’d like to acknowledge that the Tufts University Medford campus is located on Colonized Wampanoag and Massachusetts traditional territory. Now, Professor Hollander is going to introduce today’s speaker, but before he does, I’d just like to say that we’ve got five more excellent virtual colloquial planned for this semester. And at our next colloquium on October the 4th, we are pleased to have Dr. Kristen Reynolds of The New School in New York, who will present her research, urban agriculture, racial and economic equity research for food and social justice. Justin, over to you.
0:01:07.1 Justin Hollander: Thanks, Julian. And welcome. It’s really great to see this big crowd here. We are so happy to host you as part of this first Cities@Tufts lecture. So my name is Justin Hollander. So, I teach in the Department of Urban Environmental Policy and Planning. And we are really grateful to the Tufts Arts and Sciences Diversity Fund for making this event possible. The Center for Humanities at Tufts has also contributed, as did the Tufts University Prison Initiative. So really grateful to all of our sponsors. So I am really happy to have the opportunity to introduce Audrey. This is the book that she’s gonna be talking about “High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing”. Audrey has a long and distinguished record as a writer, a teacher and an activist. And when I first picked up this book, I said, “I want my students to read this book.” [chuckle] And a class I taught last year, we did read it, and students loved the book and felt that it wasn’t just well-written, which it is, but it’s an important book, and it’s an important book and it brings these voices into our policy and planning conversations that are not always there. So please join me in welcoming Audrey Petty.
0:03:11.5 Audrey Petty: Good afternoon. Thanks for being here, everyone.
0:03:25.4 Special thanks to Deandre for her assistance and support in setting me up for today for the warm welcome. And a big thank you to Professor Hollander for the generous introduction, for teaching High Rise Stories, and for the invitation to publicly reflect on work that means a great deal to me. Can you all hear me okay? Okay.
0:03:58.9 My presentation today is dedicated to the memory of Yusufu Mosley, one of the 12 narrators of High Rise Stories. Yusufu was born in Columbia, Mississippi in 1952. When he was eight, his family moved…
0:04:41.7 Okay. Our initial interview took place in a diner where Yusufu had worked as a teenager, a spot that he picked out, and we became and remained friends up until his passing in 2022. The epigraph for my presentation is by the contemporary poet, Jamaal May, a poem that resonated with me so powerfully as soon as I read it, reminding me of the process of working on High Rise Stories, the deep education it provided me, the unlearning and the learning.
0:05:24.5 Oh, boy. Here’s the poem. So many papers, so little time. This is a poem by Jamaal May. The title is, “There Are Birds Here for Detroit”. “There are birds here. So many birds here is what I was trying to say when they said those birds were metaphors for what is trapped between buildings and buildings. No, the birds are here to root around for bread. The girl’s hands tear and toss like confetti. No, I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton. I said confetti. And no, not the confetti a tank can make of a building. I mean the confetti a boy can’t stop smiling about. And no, his smile isn’t much like a skeleton at all.”
0:06:25.4 “And no, his neighborhood is not like a war zone. I am trying to say his neighborhood is as tattered and feathered as anything else, as shadow pierced by sun and light parted by shadow dance as anything else. But they won’t stop saying how lovely the ruins, how ruined the lovely children must be in that bird-less city.” I’d like to continue with an excerpt from my introduction to High Rise Stories to provide some history of public housing in Chicago. High Rise Stories turned 10 years old this very month, almost to the day. And many of the observations that I made back then about the outcomes of the Plan for Transformation remain true. On Plans and Transformations. When the high-rise buildings came down, footage of the demolition was posted on YouTube. There you can find in montage, time lapse or real-time various stages of destruction of the Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, Rockwell Gardens, Grace Abbot Homes, Cabrini-Green, Lakefront Properties. There are videos of each high-rise of Lakefront Properties being felled by implosion. Collapse occurs not all at once, but gradually, horizontally, with thick, smoky vapors of dust rising in the wake.
0:08:26.5 Other public housing structures were dismantled with cranes, excavators, backhoes. Aside from the jackhammers briskly knocking through windows and concrete, so much of the machinery seems weary. In one video, a wrecking ball appears to move in slow motion as it swings back and then lands, crushing a wall painted Robin’s egg blue. When the high-rises came down, there was official talk about progress. What was afoot was the Plan for Transformation, a $1.6 billion project and the largest public housing redevelopment venture in the United States. Announced in 1999, the ambitious plan reflected and reinforced national trends. Many municipal governments in major cities like New Orleans and Atlanta demolished swaths of public housing structures, replacing them with voucher distribution programs and limited access to mixed income developments. The Chicago Housing Authority unveiled a major advertising campaign to promote its agenda, rebranding itself with a slogan “This is change” and promising impacted CHA tenants and the city at large a fresh start.
0:09:54.3 The vast majority of those directly impacted by wide scale demolitions have been required to seek out housing in the private sector. For thousands, the outcomes have included displacement, multiple moves and homelessness. In the current economy, the poverty rate is higher than ever in Chicago, as is the need for affordable housing. When the high-rises came down, TV cameras from all over the world were on site. When the last towers of Cabrini and Robert Taylor Homes were toppled, coverage was the lead on the 10:00 o’clock news. Scores of tourists and locals alike took snapshots as mementos as proof. Now, 23 years after the demolitions commenced, countless Chicagoans still know these lost places by heart. Eddie Lehman clearly recalls Robert Taylor Holmes where for the first 13 years of his life, he lived with his mother. “That’s probably something you don’t even see in a lot of cities anymore,” Eddie says. “16 storeys and what was it, about 200 feet, you know, and about 12, 13 apartments on one floor. Each apartment got families.” Chicago’s Black Belt took shape at the turn of the 20th century.”
0:11:28.2 As a result of the Great Migration, the city’s black population increased eightfold from 1910 through the 1940s. And this growing population was relegated to a space that didn’t expand to accommodate the newcomers. Black Chicagoans were hemmed in principally to areas on the south side and secondarily on the west side, forming what came to be called a black metropolis, a community of grand homes and boulevards alongside deplorable tenements. All too often, the tenement style housing made infamous by Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha and Richard Wright’s Native Son, dilapidated, rat-infested, accurately captured the living conditions of thousands upon thousands of people in the Black Belt. The Chicago Housing Authority was born in 1937. Shortly after the New Deal, Congress passed the Wagner-Steagall Act. The act provided funds for public housing construction and public housing subsidies to dozens of municipalities during the height of the Depression. Some of the first public housing developments in Chicago were designed as temporary housing for soldiers returning from war.
0:12:51.6 Others were open to applications from Chicago residents who could prove their family income was below an ever-changing threshold. Early Chicago public housing was strictly segregated. It was in keeping with federal policy that new developments were created in concert with the prevailing demographics of a given neighborhood. Tenants of new housing developments were to be of the same race as their immediate neighbors. By the time Ida B. Wells development was first opened in 1941, the Black Belt was dangerously overcrowded. So there was a great deal of optimism when the CHA opened a 1,600-unit complex consisting of two, three and four-storey brick apartment buildings. Indeed, the Ida B. Wells Homes formed a highly coveted address for African-Americans. More than 18,000 families filed applications to live there. One may not readily think of housing developments as large neighborhoods, but in the case of Chicago, politics and architecture converged to make this so.”
0:14:04.5 “In opposition to early CHA policy that endorsed row houses in small, multi-family buildings as more socially productive and family friendly, Mayor Richard J. Daley, in office from 1955 until his death in 1976, and the CHA opted for the high-rise as the new model of public housing. The Chicago public housing development became iconic, the high-rise shouldered by matching high-rises, expanses of grass framing the whole. In 1962, at the ground breaking for Robert Taylor Homes, the mayor addressed the throng under a banner that read “Good homes building good citizens”. “This project represents the future of a great city,” the mayor said. It represents vision. It represents what all of us feel America should be, and that is a decent home for every family. Robert Taylor Homes were named after the CHA’s first black board member, notably a man who resigned in 1950 out of frustration with the city’s recalcitrants toward integration of public housing and comprised 28 16-storey buildings slated to house 11,000 people.
0:15:29.5 The Dan Ryan expressway was erected in 1962 in tandem with the construction of the Robert Taylor Homes, effectively keeping white ethnic neighborhoods, including Mayor Daley’s own Bridgeport, on one side of the 14-lane expressway and the new public housing on the other. At its peak in 1964, Robert Taylor Homes housed 27,000 people, 20,000 of them children. Robert Taylor Homes became part of the State Street corridor, with four major public housing developments taking up four consecutive miles of city in all. Defunded by city, state and federal governments over the course of the 1970s forward, high-rise public housing was chronically neglected and mismanaged. Common physical plant troubles encountered by residents included backed-up incinerators, perpetually broken elevators and infestations of roaches and vermin.
0:16:35.5 These problems were compounded by ongoing crisis that occasionally made the national nightly news, rampant gang, drug dealing, turf wars and gun violence. Whereas Richard J. Daley ushered in the revolution in high-rise public housing in Chicago, his son, Richard M. Daley, in office from 1980-2010, was at the helm of its… I’m sorry. I think I’ve got that date wrong about his time in office. I’ll correct that. He was at the helm of its systematic dismantling. Summarizing his intentions, Mayor Richard M. Daley would profess his desire to rebuild people’s souls. The CHA, the Chicago Housing Authority, Terry Peterson would refer to the targeted high-rises as god-awful buildings. In 1998, and this was when Daley was still in office, nearly 19,000 CHA units failed a viability inspection mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, meaning that under federal law, the authority was required to demolish those units within five years.
0:17:54.9 The following year, the CHA initiated the Plan for Transformation, approved by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2000. The stated goals of the plan were to renew the physical structure of CHA properties, promote self-sufficiency for public housing residents, de-concentrate poverty and reform the administration of the CHA. From the start, many CHA residents responded to the Plan for Transformation with skepticism and resistance. Tenant activists banded together to express concerns about their displacement, file lawsuits and raise alarm about developers seizing coveted swaths of real estate for redevelopment and private profit.
0:18:44.0 Current tenant activism addressed the problem of wide-scale homelessness, voicing demands for the rehabilitation of empty buildings rather than their eradication. Organized protests also resulted in the shelving of a 2011 plan for the mandatory drug testing of all renters in public housing. As of 2013, the city’s 10-year project was officially behind schedule and the completion date had been extended to 2015. It was deemed complete about a year ago by then mayor Lori Lightfoot.
0:19:31.8 Rebuilding has not kept pace with demolition and a great number of displaced families found themselves and find themselves in poor and underserved neighborhoods like Roselyn, Englewood, both on the city’s south side, using housing vouchers to rent privately owned homes, some even more distressed and dangerous than their former CHA-maintained properties. As a result of the Plan for Transformation, city governments has demolished or rebuilt 25,000 public housing units and simultaneously relocated tens of thousands of people. And nothing is settled.
0:20:11.3 For many outsiders, the disappeared buildings of Chicago public housing are too often considered in purely symbolic terms with former residents easily categorized as troublemakers or victims. The truths of the matter belie such facile conclusions. The narrators of High Rise Stories describe the promise, the failure and the success of the high rises. Their homes were once Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, ABLA Homes, Ogden Courts and Rockwell Gardens. Some express their relief at having moved away. Others describe their fear of what comes next. Each and every one expresses the myriad ways they invested in their communities.
0:21:13.0 Dolores Wilson is the first narrator who appears in High Rise Stories. The night before we met in early 2011, I drove across town from the house where I grew up in Hyde Park to Cabrini-Green on the north side. And I spent a few minutes parked in front of 1230 North Burling, the last tower of Cabrini. There had once been 23 towers at Cabrini-Green. Cabrini had once housed over 15,000 people. I looked up at 1230 Burling that night, watching LED lights illuminating intermittently here and there in different units of that final tower.
0:22:00.2 The LED constellation was part of a project initiated by the local artist Jan Tichy, commemorating the impending demolitions of Cabrini-Green. Teaching artists met with children who lived there, inviting them to write poetry about their homes, their lives. Their poems were recorded and Tichy designed a light show set to go off in tandem with a marathon livestreaming of the young people’s verses. And so I’m so glad to share a part of a narrative from Dolores Wilson. She is the first narrator of the book. And she really is worthy of an encyclopedia, so I have to say that too. When the book was published, Ms. Wilson was 83. She’s still alive and well in Chicago. Her occupation, she’s a retired city worker, a community organizer. And she lived in Cabrini, of course.
0:23:07.3 And these are her words. And one thing I’ll say, and this is in the introduction, when I met her the night after sitting outside the building, she was clearly distraught. It may have been a night or two later, but her building was on the cusp of demolition and she was clearly distraught about her building’s… This occurrence, what was about to happen. And she said, “So many of my treasures are still there.” And she went on to catalog some of the valuables, family photos, trophies, clothing, books that she had to leave behind during the hasty relocation process.
0:23:49.2 Ms. Wilson. Ms. Dolores Wilson. “I was born in Chicago in 1929, Cook County Hospital Ward 32. I think that’s the sterile ward. They had 31 and 32. If you’re born outside the ward, your baby’s un-sterile. ‘Cause you could catch anything in the hallway. After I got grown and got married and started having children, my mother told me the Cook County Hospital is the best hospital to go to. She said they have the best doctors. And I soon found out why, because it was like a charity hospital. You’re not turned around. They can treat this, treat that, and the doctors are learning all that they didn’t get in school. I had Chichi and Debbie at Cook County Hospital. Cheryl was born at Providence. Mike and Kenny were born at home. Those were the easiest births I had, Mike and Kenny.”
0:24:47.5 “Chichi almost died because he was breech feet first. If the instrument that the doctors used to turn the baby had not been there, I would’ve died, but it was there when they needed it. I wrote my mother a postcard and I said on it, ‘I almost died.’ When I got home, she said, ‘You don’t never write nothing like that on a postcard where the mailman and everybody can read it.’ They had this nice sudsy water or some kind of solution and a swab and they would just clean you afterward. Couldn’t nobody get an infection or anything in there. I love the county. I don’t know how it was after the years went by. I hate that they’re tearing it down. That whole hospital, they could have made it for the homeless.”
0:25:31.5 They had everything, toilets, kitchens, everything. All they had to do was just get security to make sure nobody was causing any problems. Now they’re gonna tear down Michael Reese Hospital too for some kind of high-rise. Chicago is a capitalistic town, is all I gotta say. And that’s why we’re not in Cabrini anymore. I lived in Cabrini-Green for 53 years. My husband Hubert and I raised five children there. When we moved there in 1958, the oldest was eight, the youngest were two and one and we loved Cabrini. Where we’d been living on the south side on 60th in Prairie, they were like fire traps. The buildings were just deteriorating. The placement at the private real estate office would charge us $10 to find an apartment. And at that time, $10 was a lot of money, but we paid for it. And everywhere they sent us were nothing but fire traps.”
0:26:28.9 “They were no good. And some of them said they didn’t want children ’cause they throw rocks and break windows, like every child will throw rocks and break windows. So I kept looking and after a while I thought, ‘Well Altgeld Gardens and Cabrini was offered to us by the city.’ I wanted Altgeld Gardens ’cause the complex was made up of family homes with little front yards and backyards, but the city buses near there ran on a slow schedule and I didn’t wanna be slowed down by anything.”
0:27:01.8 “When I was ready to go out the house and go somewhere, I wanted a bus that was coming in the next two minutes or something. So that’s what made me ask directions all the way to Cabrini-Green. And I loved the apartment. The apartment had three bedrooms and it was on the 14th floor. When I first stepped off the elevators and looked out over the railing, I thought I was gonna faint. I’d never been up that high. The cars looked like little toys. I didn’t even try to look at anything. I just looked down to see how high up I was. But after a while, you get to liking everything. Just like with people, I don’t care what neighborhood you’re in. I don’t care if it’s a diverse area or what.”
0:27:41.1 “After a while, you get to love and know your neighbors and everything and get along. That’s the way it was with me and that 14th floor. Me and Martha Williams, who’s still my very good girlfriend, we were the first two families to move into 1117 Cleveland. She was on the second floor. After they started moving more people in on the floor, you get to have neighbors and all. And in the back of my mind, I’m wondering how this ever gonna be. And I was thinking, ‘I don’t wanna be up here fighting nobody telling me that they smell garlic.'”
0:28:15.1 “I’m using that as an example ’cause we did have Puerto Rican neighbors like the Montanas who cooked a lot of garlic. I can’t stand the smell of a lot of garlic. It makes me sick. But they were wonderful people. And even though they were young, my children always wanted to go to church with the Montanas. I was so happy to know that somebody on the same floor is taking time with my children. And they had about four or five of their own taking them to church. And they would cry, ‘Mom, I wanna go to church with Ms. Montanas. I wanna go to church with the Montanas.’ My son Michael was the main one begging to go with them. And I’d be glad the kids went with them all the time.”
0:29:11.5 There’s so much more to Ms. Wilson’s story, so I hope you do look it up. [laughter] She lived a big life in Cabrini. She worked as a resident organizer. She worked for the water company as her full-time job. But she did a lot of organizing in the neighborhood. A local council that was commissioned to manage buildings there, she was at the helm of that. They received a commendation from Jack Kemp and George Bush, who she liked to call Daddy Bush. And so she did so much there. So that’s just a real small, small piece.
0:29:50.8 As the deadline approached to turn in the manuscript for High Rise Stories, there were new questions emerging for me and new patterns I was interested in following. In the final week or two of working on final edits, I met one of Mr. Wilson’s proteges, and Mr. Wilson started a drum and bugle corps. He worked… The chapter goes on to talk about his work as a custodian at Cabrini-Green, moving into 1230 North Burley because that was the building that he was cleaning and managing. But he started a drum and bugle corps in the neighborhood called the Corsairs for the local Kids. And in the final week or two of working on final edits for High Rise Stories, I got to meet one of his proteges and he spoke with passion and precision about his experiences as a member of the Corsairs.
0:30:46.7 And he also told me about the performances that they had made across the city and across the state, and that he himself had started a drum and bugle corps at his daughter’s school carrying Mr. Wilson’s legacy forward. Working on the book for two and a half years, Chicago came into sharper relief for me, and Chicago’s my hometown, its layers, its edges, its boundaries. In the same season that High Rise Stories was released, then Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the planned closures of 50 public schools in the city. Learning about this decision, I felt a deep sense of dread in terms of scale alone, the most closures at any one time in any school system in the nation.
0:31:36.6 It reminded me of the Plan for Transformation. The closures would disproportionately affect black and brown communities. As with the Plan for Transformation, there were lofty promises that those directly impacted children and their families would ultimately benefit from the closures, promises that schools would be repurposed with the input and collaboration of local people. As with the Plan for Transformation, there was little transparency in the processes that ensued and there was scant follow-up and follow-through by the city to measure and account for what would actually transpire.
0:32:20.6 For the past 10 years, I’ve continued to pursue lines of inquiry that emerged from High Rise Stories. As one example, I had the pleasure to meet with Savannah Meeks, a community builder who I’d learned about from Pete Haywood. And he’s the last, the final, the 12th narrator in the book. And so I’d like to conclude today by introducing them just a little bit.
0:32:56.6 Lloyd Peter Haywood was born in 1964 and he grew from infancy to young manhood in Stateway Gardens located in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. His sorrow was still palpable as he described the final year in his home neighborhood. Stateway Gardens was completely demolished in 2007. And this is Pete in his own words, and this is from High Rise Stories. “At Stateway, it was people helping people in the buildings.” And he’s talking about the final days of Stateway, especially. “There was a lady, Ms. Meeks, if I was hungry, I could go over to her house and eat breakfast, or I could go to this building to Ms. Well’s house and eat lunch. And really, that’s how a lot of us were living. People were taking care of each other. Every building had those cooks. They was older. Their children got older and moved out. But they loved to cook. They loved to feel a part of doing something. If someone was homeless, they would bring food that they left over to feed them. Ms. Meeks, she was funny ’cause she’d get mad if you don’t come. ‘You see, I cooked all this food and you ain’t come?’ She would cook soul food, good nutritional soul food, black-eyed peas, fish fries, whatever. And this was every day of the week.” So that’s Pete.
0:34:32.1 It took me a while, I really, as soon as I learned about Ms. Meeks, I wanted to meet her. It took a couple of years, but I finally got to meet her. And so this is a little bit from her. Born in 1945 in Madison, Mississippi, Savannah Meeks arrived in Chicago in 1960. And these are her words. “My mother died and I came up here where my oldest brother was staying. It was winter. It didn’t feel too good. I wasn’t used to that type of weather. My oldest brother was the only one up here. He stayed over at 67th in Champlain. He worked in the steel mill. His wife worked as a packer at Montgomery Ward down at the Merchandise Mart. I’d babysit. One was an arm baby and the other two went to pre-school. I’d cook, wash. When school started up again, I went to Englewood High School.”
0:35:30.6 “My first friend here was a girl named Aetna. I never lived a child’s life in my life. That’s why I always told my kids, ‘Live a child’s life. Don’t grow up fast. Live a child’s life. You can play, talk, live, run.’ I took care of my sister’s kids back in Mississippi. Maybe I had some of a child’s life when my mother was living. When my mother died, that was over because I had to take care of my sisters and brothers. I was 14, 15 when she died. I left right after.” After living for two years with her older brother’s family, Ms. Meeks moved out to her own apartment, a kitchenette in Woodlawn. She was a new mother by then, parenting a baby boy, Isador. Soon she would move to Stateway Gardens and her family would expand there. In her home at Stateway, she hosted her five younger siblings as one by one, they migrated north to Chicago, searched for jobs and made their way.
0:36:34.8 Ms. Meeks worked as an aide in a nursing home far across town in uptown. She also got to know her neighbors. Again, this is Ms. Meeks. “We had a garden. The whole building had a garden. Linda, Agnes, Ms. Alice, Ms. May, Jean Crawford, there was a lot of us that got together. We grew everything, big collard greens, tomatoes, cabbage, peas. We growed everything that could grow there. We’d go to bed at night and come down the next morning to find someone had clipped the greens. And we just got so we said we were growing it for the neighborhood. Because when the neighborhood didn’t have food for their kids, they ate out that garden. That was a meal to them. Store was over there. Go and get them some salt pork, go and get them some greens and cook for their kids. I enjoyed it. We had a garden and we had a flower yard right in the middle of that field. We had all kinds of flowers. Back then, each community, Robert Taylor, here, 22nd, all of them, we would go against each other, who got the best garden, who got the best flowers. We would have a competition. We won first prize. We was good. It was a lot of fun. Stateway was a nice place for me and my kids, to me, to me now.” Thank you for listening.
0:38:14.2 Justin Hollander: Well, thank you so much, Audrey. So what I’d like to do now is open it up for questions. We have a big crowd here. We also have a big crowd online. So if you guys can help us monitor the online and…
0:38:31.1 Speaker: We have questions. [0:38:32.4] ____.
0:38:41.4 Audience Member: [Inaudible]
0:39:02.3 Audrey Petty: Thank you for that question. I excerpted the intro where I talk a little bit about my Chicago story, and I think to begin to answer, I grew up in the city on the south side and lots of places, including Robert Taylor Homes which was enormous, was always part of my route elsewhere, going to piano lessons, going to the dentist. It was on my map. It was on my map of the city. But at the same time, it was a place that I never imagined I would go. And I never went there.
0:39:39.0 And when the buildings… When I heard about the Plan for Transformation, I wasn’t living in Chicago anymore. I was teaching a couple of hours away at University of Illinois. But as soon as I heard about it, I felt that pit in my stomach and I was really struck by a desire to know Robert Taylor and to be part of documenting it. And I also felt a real concern about what was going to happen to the residents. And so I had a conversation with an old friend who’s a writer named Peter Orner, and Peter grew up in Chicago land, and we always like to talk about Chicago. He didn’t live there anymore.
0:40:24.3 But he had worked on an oral history, and he’d worked on one called Underground America for Voice of Witness series and High Rise Stories is part of that series. And so he was the person who persuaded me to follow it, to follow my concern, to follow my curiosity. I am a creative writer sort of by formal education, but I’ve always been really interested in stories as a human currency, something we all share, something that helps us define ourselves, define our lives. And so Peter said, “Do it. Do it. Follow it. You can do it.” And so he was the person who gave me that first prod.” I’d been really inspired by Peter’s work, by Studs Terkel’s work.
0:41:11.9 When I was in college, I read the WPA papers that were focused on enslaved people and that still lives inside of me. So I think all of those different things informed the way I approached it. When I first pitched the book to Voice of Witness, I knew I wanted to focus exclusively on residence and that felt like the truest story to tell about high-rise public housing in Chicago. Thank you.
0:41:52.4 Audience Member: [Inaudible].
0:42:05.5 Audrey Petty: I did. I mean, I think I… On my block where I lived, there was a playmate who came and we played together and he lived in Robert Taylor Homes. And so I knew people who lived in public housing. At the same time, so much of what I imagined about those communities came from the news, just from headlines. And so I think that that really gave public housing for me, high-rise public housing, a sense of being a part, being over there and being… I started with that poem because I think it really resonates with me when I think about the dangers of seeing other people’s homes and experiences symbolically, [chuckle] metaphorically. And I think before I got to work on the book, I had more of that relation to high-rise public housing to not really imagine closely enough what they were for people who live there, that these were communities, these were neighborhoods.
0:43:09.8 [Question Inaudible]
0:43:23.3 Audrey Petty: Hi.
0:43:24.6 S?: I love to hear how you think the stories…[Inaudible]
0:43:38.8 Audrey Petty: Yeah, I appreciate that question. I think my first answer is to really, as strongly as I can, to advocate for policymakers, to partner with local people, to partner with those people that they may think, we are doing this for you. And I think with the Plan for Transformation, for a lot of Chicagoans who didn’t live in public housing, I think everyone had a sense that… Had an understanding that these were neighborhoods that had deteriorated. We could all agree on that part. But I think that there was also, for outside folks, a sense of relief for a lot of people that something better was going to happen next for people, for the city. That didn’t really come to pass for many, many residents. And so I think it’s not inviting people to the table. There was one example in Chicago of public housing residents in… And I’m forgetting names, but I’ll come back and name the community, I’m sorry. But they filed a suit and they actually succeeded. And so what the result of that was, there was a plan made in concert, in conversation with the stakeholders, with people who lived there for a slower process, a more inclusive process. And so I will tell you the name of it. I just…
0:45:16.2 As soon as I try, it won’t… It resists me. But that was a different situation. And so I think also with the school closures, there is a parallel that I see, and the same thing happening again. Maybe good intentions, but a lot of good intention rhetoric, but no follow-through and no deep commitment to responsiveness to the people who are directly affected.
0:45:50.3 Deandra Boyle: We have one question from audience from Paige Kelly. “How is the Plan for Transformation largely viewed by residents in Chicago today?”
0:46:00.5 Audrey Petty: Oh, I appreciate that question. I don’t wanna over-claim my authority. I think for a lot of people I know who I met in the process of working on High Rise Stories, the Plan for Transformation is not seen as a success. And there are a lot of people I met in the process of working on the book who were relocated, relocated, relocated because of the housing crash. And so I think there are people I met who said, “We knew there was gonna be a land grab.” There are people in Cabrini-Green specifically, which is on the north side, which is a stone’s throw from a neighborhood called the Gold Coast in Chicago, very high rent, very expensive neighborhoods, and there are people I met there, including Mrs. Wilson, who felt like, “We knew this was coming. We knew this was coming.” And so I’ve met people individually who have moved on, who have relocated, who were very happy in their lives, so I don’t wanna neglect that fact as well. But as a policy, a lot of people I know feel like it failed as a policy.
0:47:21.0 Audience Member: Thank you so much for bringing some of the wonderful stories that you [0:47:26.5] ____. I wanted to follow up on Ken’s question [0:47:29.6] ____ very exciting to hear about that successful lawsuit [0:47:34.7] ____. I’m wondering if that was an example where using testimony and that witnessing from your friend’s book title was instrumental in that lawsuit [0:47:49.7] ____. More broadly, have you seen the stories in the book being reused in various place for advocacy, for community learning, for policymaker learning, in book groups in various [0:48:07.7] ____?
0:48:10.1 Audrey Petty: Thank you for that question. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the book circulated in a lot of classrooms, in a lot of spaces. I’ve met with a lot of young people, younger people, younger students who have read the book. I have attended really wonderful book groups across class and all over the city. When it comes to policy, I handed the book to Chuy Garcia when he was running for mayor and he did not win. That’s the closest I came to a policy, [laughter] a person-to-person sort of policy connection. But it really does hearten me to know that the book circulates with people who care, with students who are really thinking more closely about how we do things. I see someone’s hand in the back. Yes, please.
0:49:12.2 Audience Member: Hi, [Inaudible]
0:49:34.5 Audrey Petty: Yeah. I lived in South Shore, which is on the south side of the city. I was born in Chatham, on the south side of the city, and grew up in Hyde Park, also on the south side. And I think for a lot of neighborhoods on the south side, I will say what is needed is greater investment. And I think there’s… I know there’s a lot more that I should say, but I think that’s a big piece of the answer for me. And so between the Plan for Transformation and the school closures, my parents came to the city as migrants of The Great Migration. Now in Chicago, lots of black families have left. They are leaving. They have left. I know a lot of young people, their goal is to leave. And so I think so much of that has to…
0:50:29.8 Some of it has to do with the Plan for Transformation, I believe… Some of it has to do with these school closures, I believe. And I live in South Shore, which is a neighborhood that’s right now being impacted by the building of the Obama Center. And there’s a lot of displacement happening now. There are a lot of people who rent in the community who are having to leave. And there’s a sense, I think among realtors that they’re just going to wait. [chuckle] They’re gonna wait. And so there are things shifting and changing all of the time, but I think it’s resources that are most needed to support people in those neighborhoods.
0:51:17.3 Justin Hollander: We still have time for one more question from Professor Agyeman. [0:51:19.6] ____. [laughter]
0:51:22.9 Julian Agyeman: Right. Oh, yeah. What are your hopes for Mayor Brandon Johnson? I’m seeing some really positive things coming out. For instance, in my area or research, there’s a very exciting development in Chicago about the municipality perhaps running its own grocery stores. This would be amazing for major cities. Smaller US towns have done it, Erie, Kansas. But what are your hopes for this very progressive mayor?
0:51:54.1 Audrey Petty: I heard about those plans as well and they do give me a lot of hope. He has just passed his 100-day mark as mayor. His platform was very, very encouraging and it included commitment to bringing more resources and support to the south and west sides, what was historically and what is historically the Black Belt. And so my fingers are crossed that he will be able to follow through. And I think that he could be a transformational mayor in the best sense. I really hope so.
0:52:32.5 Julian Agyeman: Great. Well, Audrey, thank you so much for a fascinating, illuminating talk and bringing in these people that we would never get to hear about. Thank you for making them speak to us and live through your presentation. I’m afraid we’re out of time now. And again, Justin, thanks so much for bringing Audrey to campus. As I mentioned, our next Cities@Tufts is on the 4th of August… Oh sorry. 4th of October, where Christine Reynolds will present on urban agriculture, racial and economic equity, a research agenda for food and social justice. Thank you everyone for coming, and we’ll see you in two weeks’ time.