High Rise Stories

Since 1995, the city has been gradually demolishing the ten major public housing projects managed by the Chicago Housing Authority, which provided homes to 200,000 people at their peak. As the displaced residents are reassigned to mixed-income developments, move out on their own, or disappear from the CHA’s records, a new volume looks back at what life was like for the millions of Chicagoans who made their lives in the projects.

High Rise Stories is the 11th collection published in the Voice of Witness series, which aims to illuminate human rights crises through oral history. Previous books focused on Sudanese refugees, women’s prison inmates, and undocumented immigrants. For this one, University of Illinois professor Audrey Petty and a team of interviewers spent two and half years talking to 26 current and former residents of Chicago public housing and then working with those interviewees to shape their transcripts into the narratives published here.

The narrators range from 83-year-old Dolores Wilson, a Cabrini-Green resident for 53 years, to Ashley Cortland, a U. of I. student who lived in Ogden Courts until she was a teenager. “It was rare for us to hear an account with a purely negative or positive perspective, and many of the stories are wrought with ambivalence and emotional complexity,” writes Mimi Lok, executive director and executive editor of Voices of Witness.

The narratives portray lives lived between two poles—the often oppressive and neglectful authority of the CHA, and the thriving, loving communities that sprang up almost in spite of it. Although drugs, gangs, violence, teenage pregnancy, and long-term unemployment feature prominently in many stories, the narrators rarely talk about them as foregone conclusions. Almost as prevalent as the depressing statistics of public housing is the residents’ optimism that they could be overcome. As Cortland says, “One of the hardest things has been seeing people take the paths that they did. Like some of the girls I grew up with, seeing them go from being these happy kids to worrying about teenage pregnancy . . . That was the hardest part. Just seeing the progression, hoping that people I cared about would make it.”

Six appendices—including a “Timeline of Housing and Civil Rights in Chicago,” a glossary, and several articles and reports on the legacy of public housing—constitute the book’s final 60 pages. Depending on the reader’s familiarity with public housing, they may serve better as a primer to be read before the narratives.

As a whole, the book is informative and moving, empathetic and educational. While most of the CHA developments are gone, their influence on the demographics of Chicago life is not. As Paula Hawkins, who grew up in Cabrini Green in the 60s and 70s, says, “The thing is: we the landmarks. Forget a building! People are the landmarks.”