Click here to watch the full video of Audrey's workshop
by Sheila Gilliam and Rachel Smith
For nearly two decades, cities across the United States, like Atlanta, New Orleans, and Chicago, have undergone urban renewal projects, removing high rise public housing to clear the way for new, multimillion dollar developments. The story of public housing in Chicago is one of the most well-known in the nation.
Founded in 1937, the Chicago Housing Authority initially aimed to provide affordable and decent housing accommodations for an influx of African American families during the Great Migration. In one such instance, State Street Corridor spanned a four mile area housing Stateway Gardens and Robert Taylor Homes, the largest housing project in the United States totaling nearly thirty six buildings and housing in excess of four thousand families. In fact, Chicago’s Housing Authority would be responsible for a total of 168 public housing complexes until 1968, when Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority lawsuit was filed forbidding further construction of public housing in predominantly Black communities already overburdened by its dense populations.
Many of these buildings were designed with as many as fifteen to eighteen stories, built of subpar materials. Over time these complexes would deteriorate due to decreased funding, maintenance failures, relaxed admission policies and rampant societal ills. For example, one narrator likened the structures’ interior to that of prisons. Ultimately, they would be deemed unsafe and unmanageable by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Consequently in 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority launched their Plan for Transformation, which removed the remaining complexes and drastically changed the lives of thousands of public housing residents. The destruction of the final structures was marked by local and national news footage as camera crews filmed the buildings coming down. Although they were plagued by violence, drugs and rampant criminal activities, these spaces were home for many of the Windy City’s Southside residents. Author, professor and native Chicagoan, Audrey Petty, indicated she felt a sense of urgency to capture the stories of former residents whose lives and experiences would ordinarily go unnoticed. She gives first person accounts of their lives in her recent book, High Rise Stories.
On November 7, 2013, Petty spoke to students in the Oral History Workshop regarding her decision to write her first oral history nonfiction work. Petty is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois and a writer of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her work on High Rise Stories represents a different kind of storytelling. She discussed the evolution of the book and the changes in her fieldwork process; the ways in which the project has affected her and continues to impact her personally; and the potential for oral history to create change.
Petty discussed the development of her project over time: how it moved from an idea into a reality, from Petty alone to a full-scale initiative with a publisher and research team, how the interviewing process evolved and how her audience changed. Petty wanted to break apart the dominant narrative of Chicago public housing and dispel some of the social stigmas attached to the marginalized neighborhood and its residents, and decided to use oral history interviews with high rise residents to do so.
While she anticipated that narrators would focus on the system failures of the public housing system and the violence, she found that the stories were also of the strong support networks of neighbors and family within the projects, how they took care of one another. As they spoke of their attachment to their homes and the joy they experienced there, their narratives were inflected by laughter. Coming to the project with this agenda of challenging popular assumptions, Petty found her own assumptions challenged.
It was unexpected turns like this that shifted the idea behind the project, what it would be, and to whom. She talked about how she began the project with the intended audience being people like her and how that shifted to the narrators being the intended audience.
Petty mentions here the desire to make a product which her narrators could see themselves in, and of which they would be proud. In this way, Petty uses oral history as a means of empowerment for her narrators. By publishing this book, she is adding their stories to the historical record of Chicago and bringing their voices into the public discourse on housing.
Petty developed a commitment to her narrators over her initially stated audience, concluding that the book should ultimately be by them and for them. However, juxtaposing this with her goal of breaking down the dominant narrative to challenge the social stigmas of the high rises then requires some reassessment. Why would she need to do so if her main audience is the narrators? Petty’s goals speak to the multileveled appeal and potential of oral history, able to convey different information to different audiences for different goals.
Petty emphasized into the importance of creating a series of questions as a guide through the interview process in order to establish rapport and gain a sense of basic knowledge about each narrator. For example, some of the initial questions included inquiries about their space, their neighbors and more common remembrances. Utilizing this strategy was effective because by the end of the exchanges, she could move away from a prescribed list of questions and rely heavily on her intuition as the interviewees grew more comfortable in recounting their stories. Ultimately, this deepening engagement would yield more meaningful recollections of their lives without probing and allowing them to share their experiences and opinions freely.
Oral history as a field gives special attention to the agency of narrators. As Alessandro Portelli writes, “The documents of oral history are always the result of a relationship, of a shared project in which the interviewer and the interviewee are involved together” (Portelli, 1991: 54). Interviewers ask questions and narrators respond with stories; together, they co-construct oral history narratives. In this way, they are said to hold what Michael Frisch refers to as “shared authority” (Frisch, 1990). Petty moves beyond the conventional conceptions of shared authority, extending this collaboration with her narrators beyond the interview process. Following the completion of High Rise Stories, Petty gives them a platform from which to discuss and promote the book.
This raises interesting questions for us as oral historians: how can we incorporate the narrators in the oral history process beyond narration? How can we engage and empower narrators beyond the finished product? How can we enlarge the scope of the oral history and extend it past the finished product? How can we rethink the process to include the narrators on a deeper level?
One of the more challenging stages for narrator involvement can be the interpretive process, in which oral historians analyze the narratives, sometimes applying an interpretation that may be at odds with the narrators’ views of their own stories. In High Rise Stories, Petty does not engage with the narratives analytically. Had she applied a more rigorous interpretive process, would it be possible to attain the same degree of narrator involvement?
One possibility would be for Petty to engage with her narrators similarly to Daniel Kerr, who conducted oral histories with the homeless of Cleveland and collaborated with them to form an analysis of homelessness (Kerr, 2003). Together they identified societal and economic trends that led to the perpetuation of homelessness. Additionally, this initiative empowered the narrators to take political action and advocate for social change. His involvement of narrators throughout the process stands as a model for engaging narrators in the interpretation and analysis of oral histories.
It is through this discussion with Petty that we witness the evolution of her oral history process. Her reflections reveal how the changes in her project mirrored larger changes in herself as an oral historian and in the empowered narrators. This stands as a reminder to us as oral historians to be mindful of our audiences, our goals, and our methodology, of how they are intertwined, develop, and affect one another. The result of her process, High Rise Stories, demonstrates the myriad potentials of oral history: to capture lost worlds, to question assumptions, to break apart media narratives, to excavate social and economic processes, to empower others, to confront and challenge and create change.
"CNN: Conclusions from Cabrini Green." YouTube. YouTube, 13 Dec. 2010. Web. 14 Dec. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K64m4wCO9iE>.
"The Plan for Transformation." home. Web. 14 Dec. 2013. <http://www.thecha.org/pages/the_plan_for_transformation/22.php>.