An oral history of life in the public housing projects of Chicago, where thousands of low-income black families lived from the 1950s until their demolition, which began in 2003 under an optimistically titled “Plan for Transformation.”
As part of a nonprofit Voices of Witness project, Petty (English/Univ. of Illinois) led a team that recorded more than two-dozen former residents of the projects, selecting 11 for inclusion here. The transcripts have been edited into coherent first-person narratives, and in some cases, the identities have been changed. The stories they tell are often alarming, filled with racial prejudice, police corruption and brutality, gang shootings, drug addiction and teen pregnancies. Though the buildings were run-down and rat-infested, many of the speakers have fond memories of a place of community, where neighbors knew each other and children played under watchful eyes. The speakers range in age from 20 to 83, and their time in the projects may have been decades or just a few years, but their voices often seem similar. Many have a common thread: feelings of displacement and regret over loss as they struggle to make new lives in unfamiliar places. Some people are on their way to a better life, studying for a career; others are finding that a prison record is tough to overcome. Following the individual narratives are a series of fact-filled appendices: a timeline of significant events in black history from 1865 to the present; a glossary of terms related to Chicago gangs, housing programs and regulations, plus a descriptive catalog of the major Chicago housing projects; an essay from Harper’s on the history of the Chicago Housing Authority; an excerpt from D. Bradford Hunt's cultural history, Blueprint for Disaster (2009); and excerpts from the Chicago Housing Authority’s progress report on its “Plan for Transformation.”
A hard look at the consequences of poverty and flawed concepts of public housing and urban renewal.