Driving down Chicago’s State Street corridor on an afternoon in the ‘90s, you might have thought a block party was going on. Toya Wolfe remembers music blasting from stereos, children playing Double Dutch and basketball and hundreds of residents milling about in the long shadows of the Robert Taylor Homes, a two-mile strip of identical brick and concrete buildings stretching 16 stories into the sky.
Despite its reputation for drugs, violence and disrepair, the Robert Taylor Homes was “its own small town” where everyone knew each other, said Wolfe, a resident turned writer who mines her life there for her debut novel, Last Summer on State Street (HarperCollins), out June 14.
“I remember, starting in my teen years, even all the gangsters who hung out in front of my building knew me and knew I went to [high] school somewhere else. When I came home, some of them would say, like, ‘Hey, schoolgirl.’ In some ways, a lot of people are protective of you … but you still keep your guard up.”
It’s this community in Bronzeville — at the time, the world’s largest public housing complex and now torn down — that Wolfe preserves for history by making it a character in her new book, debuting from a major publisher. By doing so, the 41-year-old joins a rich tradition of Chicago literati who document, brutally and precisely, what it’s like to inhabit a place and time that no longer exists. In particular, Wolfe cited Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, Richard Wright’s Native Son and the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks as inspiration.
For Wolfe, who lived the first 18 years of her life at the 4950 building depicted in the book, the story is personal. During her master’s program at Columbia College Chicago, she noticed she kept writing about the same group of girls in her assignments. After the third time, she followed her instincts and turned the story into a novel. “In literature, we don’t always read about places like the Robert Taylor Homes,” she said. “Now, it feels like history cemented.”
Set in 1999, on the verge of the Homes’ demolition, the story follows 12-year-old FeFe Stevens and her closest friends — the loyal, church-going Precious and Stacia, a feisty misfit whose family runs the neighborhood gang — as they pass the days jumping rope. But when FeFe invites a new girl, Tonya, into the circle, their lives unravel in ways that will reverberate across the decades.
Last Summer on State Street is a tender yet unsparing chronicle of Black girlhood in Chicago, examining friendship, familial duty and criminalization as institutions around them fail. In the case of the Robert Taylor Homes, the buildings were underfunded for decades and demolished from the late ‘90s until 2007. That true-to-life history unfolds similarly in the book, with visceral recollections through Wolfe’s characters. “We watched them knock down what we thought was indestructible,” Wolfe wrote, from the perspective of FeFe. “I’d learn so many things that I thought were solid and structured in my life could be broken down, bit by bit, just like those buildings.”
The Robert Taylor Homes were erected by the Chicago Housing Authority in 1962, in part to house residents displaced by urban renewal. The buildings were well maintained at first, but soon the city’s housing bureaucrats let them decay. At its peak occupancy in 1965, the Robert Taylor Homes housed 27,000 residents in a complex meant for 11,000.
“It was everyone’s and no one’s building, so we couldn’t love it like you’d care for a house of your own,” Wolfe wrote in her book.
The Robert Taylor Homes were razed as part of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation, which would demolish nearly 18,000 units of public housing citywide. Twenty-two years later, only a fraction of the promised 25,000 housing units has been constructed.
Last Summer on State Street does not shy away from the police brutality, shootings and sexual assault that occurred there. Wolfe pays particular attention to the young Black men lost to gangs, whether by force or circumstance. But there are also moments of levity. In one of the most moving chapters, FeFe’s mother takes her and her friends to Grant Park for 4th of July fireworks. The girls marvel at Buckingham Fountain, play a spirited round of Uno and fantasize about staying there forever. Asked about the scene, Wolfe said, “There are these moments where you get to pause what’s happening in your life, and I wanted them to have that — just be a kid watching colors explode in the sky, if only for one night.”
Wolfe is now living out her dream as a full-time writer, after years of working as a minister in southern California and at various part-time jobs. But she never forgot her roots. Last fall, Wolfe — who moved back to the Chicago area in 2013 — returned to the South Side to attend an event in the former Overton Elementary building and had to drive down State Street.
Where 28 apartment buildings used to rival the city skyline, there are now several blocks of open fields. Stopping her car at 49th and State, “I could see where everything used to happen and where buildings were situated,” she recalled thinking. “It’s still surreal decades later.”