It sometimes feels like my first 10 years were spent in the backseat of my dad’s company care driving one direction or the other on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago. The huge Federal housing project known as The Robert Taylor Homes, those reddish or cement-colored apartment buildings were one of the main landmarks. Another such project, Cabrini Green, was where my Dad’s cousin, Sister Mary Benet, had once taught an 8th grade of about 50 kids in one class at St. Joe’s. The Projects. That’s all you had to say to call up an image of urban poverty, crime and governmental good intentions run-amok. Except it wasn’t really “good intentions.” That expressway we drove on was put there for a reason: It segregated Chicago.
A Little Lesson
Yes, you can skip to my review below, but maybe take a moment and skim this, ok?
In the 1990’s even liberal commentator (and one of my personal heroes) said in a commentary on the CBS Evening News, that welfare no longer worked. About the same time as the Clinton Administration started reforming and remaking what we called “welfare,” (public assistance of all forms), sociologists, urban planners, criminologist, public health officials, and social workers threw in the towel on the failed experiment that was high density federal housing.
Back in the beginning these “projects” were meant to help both widows raising children on limited public assistance and working poor who had trouble, like today, finding affordable housing. But then, during LBJ’s Great Society and on into the Nixon administration (yes, the GOP had a role) people were begged and cajoled into taking welfare. This was to do what some people are screaming for today–level the playing field. Now it wasn’t merely widows who would be helped, but it would be hard to get help if there was a man in the house. Need I say more about what happened? Well, I will. The working poor got out of there. Generations then grew up in which no one had held a job in some families, or held one rarely in too many families. Crime took over. Life in the Projects became untenable.
End of Lesson
“Children don’t get to be children no more” (-Mama Pearl)
“At Robert Taylor we were always watching the world through those bars like we were in captivity and wouldn’t ever be free.” (-Felicia)
It’s the late 1990’s and the Robert Taylor Homes (and other similar projects around the country) are meeting with the wrecking ball. Felicia (aka Fe Fe), her friend Precious and two other girls from their building and school, Stacia and Tonya, love to jump rope– Double Dutch. Felecia’s mother does what welfare was meant to do–makes a loving, caring home for her two children. Precious is a very rare child in the Projects–she has an intact family with two loving parents. Her father is a Seventh Day Adventist elder. Tonya’s mother is hard-edged addict, but Stacia’s mother is into drugs sales and gang warfare. Stacia and her 12 siblings (well, those left at home) have a reputation for evil. But right now, Stacia is a girl wanting a friend. Over the course of this summer all will change for the girls. and their families.
As the buildings come down and those not “lease compliant” wait for the letter to facilitate their move that never comes, gangs lose the buildings that constituted their turf and that causes big problems. Age 12, the girls are still “girls,” but Stacia, with big sisters wants to grow up and earn the respect of the big sisters.
Stacia goes one way while her new friends go another. There is, of course, collateral damage. Human collateral damage.
The emotion in this book is too real. Children forced to learn the ways of criminals or at least to live side-by-side with them and stay safe. Coming of age is hard enough in a stable, well-funded home with two solid parents and a low crime rate in the neighborhood. What we asked kids born into the Projects to do was to magically fly through it all untouched. Possible for a few, but most were hurt along the way. That is what Toya Wolfe has done so beautifully–to show us the path to adult hood in that place.
That sort of poverty, seemingly without regard to race, creed, color, or urban vs rural location, does something to the young men. They get lost in the maelstrom, sinking to the baser elements of human nature–not usually by choice. Being “jumped” into a gang is a real event. It isn’t just a choice. Often boys who stand out for the wrong reason are forced, humbled, into it. Our juvenile and adult prisons overflow with such young men. Many were on a good path, but were targeted and “inducted” into that nefarious brotherhood, crashing their plans for good. Parents cannot control it not only because, as Mama Pearl said, “..they was so busy trying to work to put some food out that they forgot to ask their boys what they wanted to be and how they was gonna get what they wanted….” Even those who did ask, did support their boys, still watch it happen.
But because for girls, “…you need to tell people [your goals] too, that that’s where you goin’. Something about a girl with a plan lets people know you ain’t got time for foolishness.” (-Mama Peral) -Mama Pearl] but for boys this can backfire. Fitting in may be safer, if not easier. For girls like Stacia in the story, girls from homes infected tFor girls like Stacia in the story, girls from homes infected by the syphilis-like disease of the family’s soul, a disease” brought on by a lack of an immune system to protect the family from hurt, betrayal, cruelty, injustice, self-loathing and a twisted sense of family pride and honor (not to mention a lack of civility and love), fitting with the family can be the only way to survive. Stacia’s appalling story, which contrasted so vividly with the aptly-named Precious’s family cocoon of love, security, ambition, and support, perfectly illustrated why the Projects had to be eradicated. d.
“Promise me you ain’t gonna hang out with girls like [Stacia’s family]. That was cool when you was little, but you gettin’ bigger now and hangin’ with the wrong people can mess up your life. People like Stacia don’t want the kinda stuff you want. You got big dreams. Them kinda girls ain’t spinnin no globe and lookin’ at the world. They ain’t gonna get out the ‘hood like you. Even when they move they still gonna think like people in the Projects… ‘Project Mentality’…you ain’t gonna have that kind of mind.” (-Felecia’s brother)
One part of the story hit home so hard: The day Felecia’s brother “grew-up” and “left” home. It re-opened that wound that never really closed for me of that day when my own brother left home. Like FeFe, I’d felt myself to be (in the most innocent, childlike way) “his girl.” He was always in my corner, always making life better for me. And, then, he left (because he’d grown up). I wanted to hug Felecia and comfort her, tell her he’d still be “there” for her.
I also was “there” with Felecia when, that scary, unsettling, yet wonderful feeling of the first time a male body “stirred” her. For me it was at just a slightly younger age than Felecia’s experience. Oh those feelings! What to do with them, how to live through them, wanting them to go away because they were so unsettling, yet wanting them never to end. How “ripe” we are at first lust. For Felicia, though, it was even scarier due to who, what, and wear.
What was done to Black people in slavery, what was done to them during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, what was done with the building of the Dan Ryan Expressway and all those other dividing lines–in Chicago, that all erupted at the end of the 20th Century. Felicia and her friends were in the crossfire, they were the collateral damage. That, some, in their way rose like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes and still made a satisfactory life for themselves is amazing.
This book is an instant classic of coming of age at the end of the 20th Century.
Last Summer on State Street: A Novel by Toya Wolfe.
I listened to the audio version
For More on Life in Chicago’s Projects and their local neighborhood see:
There are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. Oprah made this book into a movie many years ago.
Hoop Dreams [documentary]