A collection of linked short stories takes readers inside life in Chicago’s Stateway Gardens projects.
This debut book is set mostly in the 1980s in one of the South Side’s largest, most segregated housing projects. Stateway Gardens’ eight high-rise apartment blocks (built in the 1950s and demolished by 2007) formed a neighborhood notorious for grinding poverty, violence, drug use, and crime. Drain, who grew up in Chicago, writes intimately of the human experiences of those who lived there. The stories are linked by a group of characters who are relatives and friends of a pair of brothers, Tracy and Jacob. Tracy narrates several of the stories, beginning with “B.B. Sauce,” which takes place when he’s 6 years old. He’s the younger brother, “my mother’s smart child, but Jacob was the handsome one with the precious button nose and eyelashes that flapped like dove wings.” Their rivalry will play out for years. Neither boy’s father is in the picture, and several of the stories revolve around the heartbreaking irony of a single mother who works so many hours and jobs to support her children that she has no time to be with them. For Tracy, though, that’s just one of the realities of his world. It’s a world so harshly limited that in “Wet Paper Grass,” Tracy, Jacob, and their friend Jameel undertake a harrowing journey just to hang out on a community college campus miles away: “It was our summer resort….We imagined ourselves as those rich North Side white kids being sent to European cities we’d never manage to spell.” But just getting there puts eight-year-old Tracy in mortal peril. In “The Stateway Condo Gentrification,” teenage Tracy—still the smart one—realizes that in some ways living in the projects is “no different than living in those condos that weren’t more than four miles north of us on Michigan Avenue.…You could see the entire city from our fourteenth-floor ramp.” It turns out to be a prescient observation.
Drain writes with fierce warmth about characters coping with crushing racism and poverty in this impressive debut.