One of the best ways to learn about other places and times is through oral histories. Interviews with everyday people can give you a terrifically vivid glimpse into one specific experience of a given place or time. That’s why I love the Voice of Witness series of books, published by McSweeney’s Books. Voice of Witness is a non-profit publishing company that—in their words—“uses oral history to illuminate contemporary human rights crises in the U.S. and around the world.”

I’d like to highlight one specific book from their series this week: Audrey Petty’s High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing. Audrey is a Chicago native, born and raised. For this project, she interviewed over 26 people who lived in Chicago public housing in the 80s. In the early 2000s, many of these buildings were demolished, and these stories Audrey has collected, complied, and edited in this book are some of the only evidence we have left of the vibrant and troubled communities who once called those places home.

High Rise Stories is told primarily in the voices of these storytellers (Voice of Witness calls them “narrators”)—each of whom has a compelling and fascinating story to share. But I’m going to read to you an excerpt from Audrey Petty’s introduction, which will give you some insight into her background and what brought her to this particular subject.

Here it is, an excerpt from “On Plans and Transformations,” Audrey Petty’s Introduction to High Rise Stories, published by Voice of Witness.

I am a South Sider who came of age in the early 1980s, the child of native Southerners. My first neighborhood was all-black, middle-class Chatham Village. At age seven, I moved with my family to Hyde Park-Kenwood, a relatively well-to-do, racially integrated community, now best known as Barack Obama’s adopted stomping grounds. When venturing out, I learned boundaries. Just across a field was busy East Forty-Seventh Street, lined with tenements, nightclubs, taverns, liquor stores, a meager grocery, a hardware store, and a funeral home. Postcard Chicago gleamed in the distance: the Sears Tower, the Standard Oil, the Prudential. Though my parents forbade me to traverse East Forty-Seventh alone, eventually I’d sneak across the much-trafficked thoroughfare to buy penny candies from the closest liquor store.
Ten blocks south of the townhouse where I grew up are the stately, Gothic halls of the University of Chicago. My forays onto the campus were more complicated. I wandered through quiet courtyards, intrigued by gargoyles crowning archways and alcoves, peeking through ivy. And I was regularly stopped short in my explorations, barred from entering public halls by uniformed guards who ordered me to leave. (Close to home, my brown skin often helped me blend into a crowd. But in the ever-emerging maze of the University of Chicago, it marked me as an outsider.)
To the west of my neighborhood, and closer to us than the city’s downtown skyscrapers, stood Robert Taylor Homes. Twenty-eight high rise buildings. Together they formed an imposing façade. Though my memory often fits them into my daily vista, I couldn’t actually see Robert Taylor Homes from my doorstep. Nonetheless, I saw them often—on the weekly bus ride to piano lessons, excursions to the ballpark, and fall and winter holiday drives to my aunt and uncle’s place on the Far West Side. I saw them often and I also imagined them. As I imagined them, the buildings were always over there. Despite their physical proximity, the buildings seemed remote, vividly unto themselves. They were terminally run-down. Robert Taylor Homes were public housing, back then the largest public housing complex in the United States. And while the peak of the Sears Tower seemed entirely reachable to me as a kid, Robert Taylor Homes were ever unknowable, ever apart.
When those buildings came down, starting in 2003, I was grown up, a resident of Urbana (in downstate Illinois), and a frequent visitor to my hometown. Word of the demolition of places like Robert Taylor Homes didn’t surprise me. City Hall’s rationales were what I expected; I’d followed headline stories about high rise public housing nearly all of my life. Nonetheless, the eventual destruction of these landmarks stunned me. The absence of the twenty-eight buildings of Robert Taylor Homes compelled me to reckon with their enormity as a community. What were those communities really like? I wondered. And where on earth did all those people go?