High Rise Stories: Voices From Chicago Public Housing


Edited by Audrey Petty
Foreword by Alex Kotlowitz


Read an excerpt here.

About the book:
In the gripping first-person accounts of High Rise Stories, former residents of Chicago’s iconic public housing projects describe life in the now-demolished high rises. These stories of community, displacement, and poverty in the wake of gentrification give voice to those who have long been ignored, but whose hopes and struggles exist firmly at the heart of our national identity.

Among the narrators:
DONNELL, who was initiated into gang life at the age of twelve. A former resident of Rockwell Gardens, Donnell recounts growing up in an environment where daily life involved selling drugs, fighting rival gangs, and navigating encounters with a corrupt and often violent police force, as well as his efforts to turn his life around after incarceration.

SABRINA, whose sister was shot in the head in their Cabrini-Green apartment when she was caught in the middle of a turf-related shooting. Because ambulances refused to come to Cabrini-Green, and the elevators were out of order, Sabrina’s father and her then-pregnant mother had to carry her sister down thirteen flights of stairs to rush her to the hospital.

DOLORES, who, at the age of 82, was hastily displaced from her home in Cabrini-Green after 53 years and forced to leave many of her belongings behind. Dolores depicts her community’s evolution over five decades, including her leadership in resident government, and her husband’s mentoring of youth through a Drum and Bugle Corps.

CHANDRA, whose son’s felony conviction bars him from entering the grounds of Chandra’s home in Orchard Park. Chicago Housing Authority rules demand that Chandra report him to the police if she sees him on the property, or face eviction herself.


About the Editor:
Audrey Petty is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A Ford Foundation grantee, her work has been featured in ColorlinesStoryQuarterly, and Saveur, among many others.

You can download free curriculum for this book here.


Select Press & Praise for High Rise Stories:

“Audrey Petty’s interviews put flesh on city’s ghostly high-rises” (Chicago Tribune, 12/25/2013)

“High-rise public housing might be gone from Chicago, but its residents remain” (Chicago Reader, 9/16/2013)

“Six Questions: High Rise Stories” (Harper’s Magazine, 10/2/2013)

“The importance of this book cannot be overstated. High Rise Stories is essential reading for anyone interested in fair housing. The Voice of Witness series is a megaphone for our country’s most marginalized voices, opening critically needed space in the national conversation on housing reform.” —Van Jones, Former Special Advisor to the Obama White House, author of Rebuild the Dream and The Green Collar Economy

“High Rise Stories radically expanded my understanding of human beings.”— George Saunders, author of Tenth of December

“A hard look at the consequences of poverty and flawed concepts of public housing and urban renewal.” — Kirkus Review

“The[se] stories demand attention…though nearly all of the high-rises themselves have been torn down over the last decade, the problems discussed in th[is] book remain.” —Publisher’s Weekly

“A powerful and authentic work. High Rise Stories captures the vibrant sense of community and home, as well as the challenges, that existed for those who lived in Chicago’s public housing developments, through a series of searing first person narratives. An important book and a very moving read.” —Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps

“Although Chicago demolished almost all of its public housing towers over the last few years, the “projects” live on in infamy. Cabrini-Green, Henry Horner, Robert Taylor–these were the imagined wastelands of the inner-city’s decay, the proper names of urban catastrophe. Employing the intimate interview style of Studs Terkel, High Rise Stories allows real residents of public housing to speak in their own voices. Their gripping life stories are at once harrowing and inspiring, and give the lie to the myth that the projects were a monolithic hell, the people there mere victims or victimizers. The book is important reading for anyone hoping to understand Chicago in all its workings.” —Ben Austen, The Last Tower

‘Whatever else might be said about Chicago’s Plan for Transformation, it has proved a stunningly effective disappearing act. The city did not merely demolish its high-rise public housing developments; it erased them, without regard for the identities, attachments, and histories of those for whom these communities were home. High Rise Stories is a major act of recovery and rescue. Bypassing the official narrative of enlightened urban “transformation”—as well as the social scientific folklore and magical thinking about “mixed income communities” deployed to support it—Audrey Petty has done something radical: she has simply and deeply listened to residents. Her book is an extended act of neighborly hospitality. Each of the voices she has assembled is distinct. Taken together, they evoke a lost world and speak to a future in which all have an equal right to the city.” —Jamie Kalven

To order High Rise Stories from the McSweeney’s store, please click here.

This project, and the work of Voice of Witness, is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.