This essay seeks to expand the genre of black literary urbanism by examining Frank London Brown’s Trumbull Park (1959) and Jasmon Drain’s Stateway’s Garden (2020) as literary bookends of public housing history in the United States. The essay argues that public housing fiction is an understudied subgenre of the black urban narrative that, when surveyed for its historical context, phenomenological perspectives, and diverse literary style, widens literary urbanism’s representation of the structure of feeling within and regarding the built environment of urban space. In addition, this piece works through Elizabeth Alexander’s construct of “the black interior” to explore the ways in which public housing residents might valorize their environs apart from sociological and racialized discourses. Thinking through public housing fiction as an extension of the black urban narrative helps to demystify the nuances of urban spatiality and the range of socioeconomics that propel modern cities.
In his essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem” (1961), James Baldwin condemns public housing as one of the greatest aesthetic and moral failures of modern urbanism, arguing that its smashed windows and defaced walls are outer expressions of Harlem’s contempt for so-called slum rehabilitation. “The projects are hideous,” Baldwin (1961: 63) writes; “They are lumped all over Harlem, colorless, bleak, high, and revolting.” Tracing the outcomes of what he elsewhere terms “Negro removal,” Baldwin attributes the pattern of urban displacement and divestment in predominantly black residential spaces to America’s antebellum psyche. Thus, what begins as a microhistory of his old Harlem neighborhood quickly expands into an indictment of the race relations that, for Baldwin, public housing reflects: “The projects in Harlem are hated. They are hated almost as much as policemen. . . . And they are hated for the same reason: both reveal, unbearably, the real attitude of the white world” (63). This attitude, Baldwin clarifies in subsequent paragraphs, is the general inability of White Americans to recognize Black Americans’ humanity, which—in the context of housing—could be evinced from the substandard living conditions that most Whites did not and would not want to share. “Walk through the streets of Harlem,” Baldwin challenges, and one’s liberal sensibilities would be confronted with the hypocrisy of rationalized inequality (71).
Baldwin’s charges extend the claims of sociological discourse spanning from The Philadelphia Negro (1899) by W. E. B. Du Bois to St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton’s Black Metropolis (1945). Like Du Bois and Drake and Cayton, Baldwin distinguishes between the effects of unequal economic investment and the symptoms of neighborhood degeneration. As Martin Luther King would in 1966 and the Black Panthers would in the 1970s, Baldwin draws a circle around the intentional carceral production of such environments, and the blind hostility with which they have been policed. His portrayal aligns with the spatial map of the twentieth century’s black literary corpus in depicting young urban dwellers drifting between the doors of the church, the edges of Black radical street rallies, and the darkness of the drug corner. He acknowledges the social habitus of the Black working class but critiques their efforts “to make their hovels habitable,” arguing that the constraints of segregation, economic exploitation, and slum conditions are bound to overwhelm this type of aesthetic fortitude (60). The very presence of the housing project indicated to Baldwin the hypocritical myth of social mobility within an American class structure premised on racism.
His astute racial analysis, however, betrays a certain reductionism when he declares, “A ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence” (65). This language, rising from a just concern, represents an extreme response to a breakdown in societal infrastructure. In protesting the segregationist origins and neglect of public housing in Harlem, Baldwin casts the blanket of pathology over Harlem’s entire geography, effectively reifying arguments that have been used to justify displacement and gentrification regimes. He discounts, for example, the longevity of community fixtures mentioned in the same essay, such as the grocery store that extends credit and the shoe-repair shop that makes shoes look “new” (57). Curiously, Baldwin includes an asterisked footnote that draws attention to another important problem with his reductionism. In the footnote, we observe he has offended residents in the area who contest being pathologized and, more specifically, being lumped in with other residents whose housing arrangements differ:
The inhabitants of Riverton were much embittered by this description; they have, apparently, forgotten how their project came into being; and have repeatedly informed me that I cannot possibly be referring to Riverton, but to another housing project which is directly across the street. It is quite clear, I think, that I have no interest in accusing any individuals or families of the depredations herein described: but neither can I deny the evidence of my own eyes. Nor do I blame anyone in Harlem for making the best of a dreadful bargain. But anyone who lives in Harlem and imagines that he has not struck this bargain, or that what he takes to be his status (in whose eyes?) protects him against the common pain, demoralization, and danger, is simply self-deluded. (64)
Baldwin stages a rebuttal then quickly rejects it under the warrant of an authoritative, though questionable, objectivity. This authority is constructed by the injection of a phenomenological perspective whose grounds rest on “the evidence of [Baldwin’s] own eyes.” In fact, as Herb Boyd (2008: 134) points out, Baldwin had confused the privately subsidized Riverton Houses for the New York Housing Authority’s Lincoln Houses: “To Baldwin’s eyes, one high-rise complex was no different from another.” That Baldwin acknowledges the subjective perspective of Riverton residents only to dismiss it illustrates a solipsism frequently visible in political debates over housing issues.
In this essay, I wish to parse out some phenomenological distinctions within the literary map of so-called ghetto settings to query what such nuance might contribute to the analytic of black literary urbanism and lend to the cultural history of public housing. By phenomenological, I mean how apperception is filtered through the subjective attitude1; or, to cite Sara Ahmed (2006: 544), “the starting point for orientation . . . from which the world unfolds.” A spatial hermeneutic, phenomenology proceeds from the body outward and allows us to perceive and bracket that which we determine most consequential. When it comes to the perception of spaces, Ahmed argues what we find ourselves turning toward ultimately reveals our standing in life (546). As a philosophy, phenomenology bridges the methodology of the social sciences with the interests of the humanities, asking us to take seriously the personal point of view. When it comes to thinking about low-income housing both as a real space and a literary object we encounter through reading, maintaining a phenomenological insistence might assist with separating the observation of the ghetto as a symbol of poverty from the range of relations to poverty experienced within it.
The built and social environment of public housing forms part of the object of black urban space but is rarely discussed for its particularity in American literary studies. When it is discussed, the analysis is often bound by the binary of black and white race relations in the United States, a necessary but somewhat static rubric against which to evaluate housing representations. Works such as Frank London Brown’s Trumbull Park (1959) and Jasmon Drain’s recent Stateway’s Garden (2020) foreclose static consumption of these spaces and emphasize public housing’s historic significance to our understanding of poverty and place. Public housing history is important to literary representations of urban geography because, depending on the decade and location, housing arrangements for Black people can reflect differential social relations vis-à-vis the state, law enforcement, and neighborhood networks. Such differentials compel a range of resident attitudes and definitions of home.2 These microhistories of urban space thicken our understanding of the experience of lack versus representations of the conditions of it. Parsing out the “where” when possible is useful in understanding the impacts of different levels of subsidy, changing ethnic demographics, interracial and intraracial conflicts, the potential for mobility, and feelings of belonging or detachment. The nuance that fictions set in public housing inserts resists the idealization of the urban by naturalism and realism, as well as the subordination of class consciousness to race. Public housing fiction is an understudied subgenre of the black urban narrative that, when surveyed for its historical context, phenomenological perspectives, and diverse literary style, widens literary urbanism’s grasp of the structure of feeling within and regarding low-income environments.
Harlem, akin to Chicago, is famous as a setting within black literary urbanism, but Chicago is more infamous as a site of public housing. Therefore, I carry Baldwin’s shadow to Richard Wright’s stomping grounds for the purposes of staking out a terrain that pushes against the popularized image of the ghetto as monolithic. Bigger Thomas never lived in public housing, but he presumably could have, as Wright’s 1940 Native Son became emblematic of and synecdoche for all Black-occupied slum housing in Chicago and its depersonalization, so much so that Gwendolyn Brooks’s small novel, Maud Martha (1953), which only a decade later portrays the vivid social strivings of kitchenette residents, was critically ignored. This is not to entertain whether the perspective of those who do not survive an environment outweighs that of those who adjust to it but to reiterate that the image and habitus of urban space are broader than the positive/negative pendulum black urban narratives have often been couched within. I consider Brown’s semi-autobiographical novel and Drain’s debut story collection as literary bookends that demonstrate the impact of historical shifts on our reading, as well as how patterns in theme and aesthetic style might influence the coherence of public housing fiction as a literary form. I also work through Elizabeth Alexander’s construct of “the black interior” to question what is “black” about negotiation of the insides of public housing apartments and buildings. Brown and Drain portray residents grappling with long-entrenched spatial inequalities, against the backdrop of richly textured settings. In each work, characters navigate the differing geographic connotations of the West and South Sides of Chicago; class and racial boundaries; and the specific histories of public housing’s desegregation and twenty-first-century demolition. The resulting depictions of public housing present a more complicated view of the black urban imaginary.
Trumbull Park is the seminal public housing novel. In it, Brown fictionalizes his own family’s experience integrating one of the first government housing developments on Chicago’s South Side. The first-person novel captures an early juncture in housing history that exposes how the racialization of public housing as a space became embedded into its “democratic” beginnings.3 Preceding the Secretary of the Interior’s advocacy for “the neighborhood composition rule,” Trumbull Park was built in South Deering, a predominantly white area in the 1930s, in juxtaposition to Chicago’s Ida B. Wells development, also considered South Side but intentionally built to segregate Black residents.4 Trumbull Park was considered a white project; the first couple to integrate it (Betty and Donald Howard) were only allowed in because Betty’s skin was light enough to be interpreted as ethnically white.5 By the time the Browns and ten other families moved into Trumbull Park in 1954, the Howards had already made the news for the daily assaults they endured from White mobs: bricks through the windows, Molotov cocktails, yelling, and racial slurs. Over the next three years, crowds numbering in the thousands would continue to threaten Frank Brown and his family as they walked in and out of the development, thinly guarded by police (Hirsch 2021: 523). This daily harassment was, as Baldwin put it, “a dreadful bargain”: a willful submission to violence in exchange for escape from the hazardous tenements of Chicago’s overcrowded and exploited Black Belt. Yet, Brown, a career activist,6 refused to relocate until his wife’s physical health necessitated it.
Brown’s main characters, Buggy and Helen Martin, are catalyzed to accept a voucher from the housing authority to move into Trumbull Park after a child falls from the balcony of their slum tenement. Thus, part of the novel’s historical context is the fact that early public housing was viewed as an alternative housing option within the ghetto right around the time Wright was condemning the kitchenette. In fact, D. Bradford Hunt marks residents’ excitement about moving into these early buildings. Quoting one of the first tenants to move into Altgeld Gardens, Hunt (2010: 3) cites, “‘We felt it was just paradise. We felt this was the greatest housing we could live in!’” Writing twenty years later, Brown contrasts perspectives of the rundown brick exterior with its inviting interior, introducing the phenomenological through the visual. Buggy thinks, “What a serious, sad, worried-looking bunch of buildings!” (Brown 2005: 25). The buildings of the complex are described as uniformly shabby, the architecture homogeneous. Later, the reader is told that Trumbull Park “looked like a tall gray prison rising out of the fog,” explicitly invoking the carceral (420). But moving indoors, Buggy appreciates the sanctity that Trumbull Park offers relative to his former residence: “No cracks in the ceiling, no cabbage stink seeping under the front door . . . I needed a deep breath to help me take in all this cleanliness, fresh paint, and all” (40). Walking into the apartment of another couple, Buggy admits, “I was surprised to see such a sharp house! These people had taste! Everything was modern. . . . The couch was a light-grey sectional job, and there was a great big comfortable-looking chair against the wall—away from the window—to match” (282). The Martins go about setting up house, as well, and Buggy notes that their neighbors take as much care in creating a semblance of home as he and Helen do despite the ongoing barrage on the outside of their units. The Browns and other couples mix drinks and play blues records all while inspiring each other with the courage to organize. Highlighting these details is not to make light of the societal assault on Black-owned (or -leased) property under the constrictions of redlining and blockbusting or to suggest nice furniture and music somehow combat systemic oppression. Instead, I wish to point out the valence asserted by the characters in appreciating and cultivating the interiors of their domestic space just as the depreciation of its exterior (through literal property damage) makes clear the space’s racial devaluation.
Elizabeth Alexander’s (2004) generous formulation of “the black interior” is useful in gathering why descriptions of the indoors function as a defining characteristic of public housing fiction. In her preface, Alexander (2004: x) defines the black interior as “a metaphysical space beyond the black public everyday . . . that helps us envision what we are not meant to envision: complex black selves.” The black interior embodies unguarded moments of paradox, especially visible in black art; Alexander posits the black interior is “what in our culture speaks, sustains, and survives post-nationalism, post-racial romance, into the unwritten black future” (xi). The first chapter of her book begins with an epigraph from Zora Neale Hurston’s well-known essay, “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934), in which Hurston provides a reading of a southern Black’s living room. Alexander gathers this reading with her spatial interpretation of the decor of her own childhood home, accented as it was by Romare Bearden paintings, alongside Brooks’s kitchenette portrayals. Black interiors, argues Alexander, have always been a matter of the perspective we gain from studying black visual and poetic expression. They encapsulate desire, identity, and culture. They point to a black interiority or a privacy beyond the disciplinary effects of sociological observations, and they contest—like Brooks’s sonnet, “kitchenette building”—“stereotypical spectating” (Alexander 2004: 16). This allows us to think about the significance of interior spaces in establishing a countercultural value system that speaks back to outsider rhetorical claims. Black interiors, like all interiors, are inherently phenomenological. They mark their distinction in the ways they reflect a particular negotiation of black identity relative to a broader context.
In Trumbull Park, this negotiation can be seen through Brown’s reformulation of property value. Although the Martins move to Trumbull Park to escape a rundown tenement in the Black Belt, Brown includes what effectively would be considered a slum area in his affirmation of what constitutes an interior sense of community and self. Brown’s scale of valorization is based on a phenomenological distinction that is able to both fit these black residential spaces in a wider sociopolitical map, as well as assert a spatial uniqueness premised outside of the materiality of real estate. At the outset of the novel, we are told Buggy and Helen’s initial home in the Gardener Building is located somewhere north of Chicago’s Fifty-Sixth Street and between State and Lafayette Streets. Geographically, the map Brown lays out aligns with Washington Park, a neighborhood that borders the University of Chicago. In the 1950s, the University of Chicago would have been heavily involved in the reengineering of its neighborhood borders to ensure that campus grounds were insulated from a lower-class element, especially lower-class African Americans (Hirsch 2021: 154).7 Even without directly critiquing these machinations, the novel alludes to spatial realities within the text that further demarcate socioeconomic and racial inequities. Yet, the characters exert a desire to distinguish those inequities from a blanket condemnation of the space.
The text is marked by an ambivalence toward the built environment that consigns Black people to unsafety and racial prejudice. In the beginning of the novel, the Martins’ first residence, the Gardener Building, is described as “rotten from the inside out” (Brown 2005: 1). As evidence of this figurative description, the toddler, Babydoll, falls through a rotting balcony on the very first page. Buggy at one time calls the Gardener Building an “evil scoundrel”; at another time, he questions whether “he had exaggerated how bad it had been” (131). Since throughout the novel, the overwhelming impression of the Gardener Building is its physical deterioration and corrupting influence, Buggy is taken off guard (and perhaps the reader is, as well) when his wife Helen says, “If we had all stuck together in that Gardener Building and made that old money-grabber Mr. Gardener fix up that place, maybe Babydoll would be alive today. Maybe we’d still be there” (132). Admittedly, this statement comes when the Martins are already experiencing the pressure of daily life in Trumbull Park. However, through this proclamation, I suggest that the novel shifts its depiction of the Gardner Building from mere real estate into a site that affirms social good:
We had become so wrapped up in our own growing anger that we hadn’t had time to get the feeling of closeness with the world around us that had been one of the best things about living in the Gardener Building. Living almost in each other’s laps, the way the people in the Gardener Building had, made Christmas everybody’s Christmas. The smell of everybody’s turkey blended in with that of everybody else’s, and those places which had no turkey smell were soon known to those places that did. Christmas Eve would catch Mrs. Palmer and Bertha and Mrs. Jackson and Helen’s mother easing in and out of the apartments with big platters piled high with pieces of turkey, and bowls of dressing, and saucers of cranberry sauce, along with a shot or two of some of that man-sized egg nog. (216)
Here, proximity and intimacy dissolve the borders between apartments and transform the interior into one shared experience, “everybody’s Christmas.” Brown shows how the Gardener residents negotiated their poverty through a combination of kinship and generosity that symbolize or imitate familial arrangements. Although the housing stock of Trumbull Park is structurally safer (apart from the physical violations of the race mobs), Buggy’s nostalgia for the social dynamics of the Gardener highlights an equivocation. The interior of the Gardener Building or, rather, the ways in which its Black residents supported one another, constitutes—or maybe substitutes for—the greater infrastructural support Trumbull Park was supposed to offer.
Brown’s novel intervenes in black literary urbanism to expand our notion of value by presenting the interior as both physical and relational. In one of the later passages of the book, Buggy looks from his brother to his dying father and realizes, “I was something, did come from some place. Trumbull Park and the Gardener Building were not just nightmares waiting till morning so that they could go away. They were real, and so was my father” (391). Buggy’s synthesis of the material, familial, and spatial passes through the negative genealogies of black urban space and integrates them with a personal conception of identity, valuable in and of itself. This inflection is important because, as commodities, space and place get inherently caught within binaries of value—real estate that marks social status and signs of racial differentiation. However, by assimilating even the nightmarish aspects of Gardner and Trumbull into an enunciation of self-recognition and self-worth, Brown validates internal assignations of value despite the logic of externally defined hierarchies. While this phenomenological operation may, in fact, be more universal than Alexander’s construction of the black interior, the ability to posit value in one’s home, or self, contrary to the external world’s projection of abjection is a coping strategy that African Americans have exercised from slavery to the present.
Brown’s resignification of the value of place expands the possibilities for representation of black urban space and extends the contours of black social realism or, rather, the different ends to which it might be read. One of the key features of social realism is its lineage from literary naturalism and the premise that space (ergo the environment) is unrelentingly hostile. From an architectural perspective, the validation of place and place-making is a belated innovation that emerges from postwar attempts to reclaim personalization from the social crises of the twentieth century.8 Given the economic and social limitations on Black people’s claims to ownership of modern and postmodern spaces, it makes sense that Trumbull Park could be read as depicting “characters [so] alienated from their domestic spaces” as to underscore “legal formulations and social perceptions of Black domestic space as ‘valueless’” (Avilez 2008: 135). Houston A. Baker Jr. (1993: 108) once claimed that environments such as the kitchenette and public housing unit inherently deny a sense of place.9 Madhu Dubey (2003: 119), on the other hand, challenges this construction of the margin and underclass rhetoric, averring that critical studies might overlook “opportunities of critical transformation [within] the very negativity of given social conditions.” Brown bridges these two outlooks by displaying that the effects of racist constructions of Trumbull Park (i.e., who White people at the time thought belonged to the space) served as catalysts for the protagonist’s and other focal characters’ self-development. In this vein, Trumbull Park functions as traditional social realism, invested in responding to the deterministic nature of the nation’s division of urban residents into racialized subjects and the urban map into racial zones. But it also draws on the form of the bildungsroman by integrating the “I” into a communal subjectivity defined by place (Redfield 2018: 38).
Mary Helen Washington (1999: xvi) situates the aesthetics of Trumbull Park somewhere between the fifties’ civil rights novel and the sixties’ protest novel, establishing its incorporation of blues vernaculars and its portrayal of the development of a “community” consciousness as exemplary of those genres. Brown believed in literary realism’s ability to arbitrate black collectivity. His motivation to inspire readers is frequently quoted from a Sepia (1960: 29) magazine interview: “If I could get the Negro reader to identify himself with this man, then, at the end of the novel, the reader would be sworn to courage—.”10 By the end of Trumbull Park, protagonists Buggy and Helen Martin have overcome their fear of racial violence and, with other Black couples featured in the novel, committed to ongoing civil resistance. Narratively and rhetorically, for Brown, the characters “come of age.” Buggy’s internal monologue on the last page, which culminates his decision to defy the housing rule for a police escort, reflects Brown’s desire to include future generations in the same radical tradition:
They’d walk now. I knew they would. . . . So would guys not yet in Trumbull Park, and their wives, and their children. They’d walk. They’d follow the path that Arthur and Mona and Harry and Helen and I had made—widen that path and wear it smooth. They’d let these people, the Big Boys and the Little Boys, let them know that death is not enough anymore to keep Negroes from walking—and running and crawling and flying and singing and crying and even dying—for what we know is ours. (Brown 2005: 432)
Brown uses Trumbull Park to localize and symbolize the site of “good trouble” that many African Americans would have to pass through. Polysyndeton in this passage knots the Black civil rights struggle and freedom dream together, connecting the “path worn smooth” to both the characters and the space itself. While drawing on the black literary motif of flight to imply mobility and escape, the future conditional of Buggy’s prediction of “guys not yet in Trumbull Park” also forecasts a legacy to be taken up in the very same setting. This assertion of place arbitrates the memory and longevity of public housing. The contingency of its future, thus, becomes an aesthetic feature of the genre.
In Ghetto Images in Twentieth-Century American Literature: Writing Apartheid, Tyrone R. Simpson (2016: 88) recalls that the canon of literary urbanism “is an art applauded for how dramatically it depicts the defects of its spatial object. . . . Revulsion and misery become the very essence of the aesthetic that distinguishes the work and grants it gravitas.” Echoing Baldwin, Simpson synthesizes the characteristics twentieth-century texts have correlated with the ghetto—“the filth and darkness of the tenement, the barrenness of the waterfront, the angry graffiti in the hallway, the imposing height of a wall separating the boulevard”—to demonstrate that, across the archive of ghetto literature, depictions of urban space are the effect of racial anxieties about the otherness of blackness. His aim is to show that the ghetto itself is such that it leads to pathological behaviors no matter what race one is and that ghetto culture is not a “black thing” (13). Simpson wants to de-essentialize identity, but in doing so, he may essentialize the very spatial effect his study works to contest. Interestingly, Simpson does focus several chapters on novels set in public housing, and the themes that Simpson emphasizes (misery, desire for escape, and hierarchical citizenship) do align with the social reality of many public housing residents, especially those trapped into economic positions and slum housing because of structural inequities. However, Simpson rightly affirms the difficulty of “identifying all the ghosts buried beneath the geographic memories of the metropolis and the racial ghetto” (14). Low-income areas expose the entrenchment of segregation and the vagaries of the city’s desire to attract global capital through gentrification and redevelopment projects. But race in the twenty-first century (and, in some cases, its invisibility within the umbra of mixed-income geographies) serves as a convenient graveyard to obscure conflicting notions of modernity. So, if we are going to discuss ghosts—or specters—of urbanity and, particularly, of public housing, we must also excavate the persistent ambivalence about, mourning over, and resistance to the ghetto’s erasure.
Jasmon Drain’s 2020 debut story collection, Stateway’s Garden, concatenates the concerns of twentieth-century urban texts with the twenty-first century’s imperative to maintain spaces of affordable housing. Geographically, Chicago’s public housing complex of Stateway Gardens no longer stands at Thirty-Fifth and State Streets. Its eight stark-white, high-rise buildings were razed as part of the Chicago Plan for Transformation, along with other properties along State Street, including the more notorious Robert Taylor Homes. Commenced under the umbrella of Hope VI legislation during the Clinton administration, the Plan for Transformation was a multi-million-dollar redevelopment project that promised to renovate at least 30 percent of Chicago’s 25,000 public housing units and demolish all of the city’s high-rises. This was a national trend, displacing tens of thousands of (mostly Black) people. Stateway Gardens has since been replaced by low-rise buildings renamed Park Boulevard. It went from hosting 1,600 subsidized apartments to boasting only thirty-five units available to public housing tenants. Therefore, Drain’s book is an elegy to a space that has been erased from the landscape and to all the residents who were forced to relocate and then just disappeared.
Like Trumbull Park, Stateway’s Garden follows an ensemble of characters, primarily African American brothers Tracy and Jacob, as they navigate the ups and downs of life in contemporary public housing. This focus extends the heritage of a famous nonfiction text, Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (1991). Kotlowitz’s text, which centers on brothers Lafayette and Pharoah Rivers growing up in the now-demolished Henry Horner Homes of Chicago, was considered the first in-depth exposé of inner-city America. Despite the title, one of Kotlowitz’s motivations in the book seems to be to preserve the space of childhood for his youthful protagonists and their friends in the face of violence and the vulnerabilities of poverty. Narrating from an omniscient, third-person point of view, Kotlowitz (1991: 51) frequently points out the childlike responses of the boys to dramatic “adult” events, such as Lafayette enthusiastically joining a throng of teenagers as they chase an alleged child molester or, after a friend’s gunning down, Pharoah asking if heaven has clothing stores. The authorial voice of the text strives for lyricism and unobtrusiveness, leading Liam Kennedy (2006: 99) to argue that the narrative tone compels a liberalist sympathy premised on concerns about childhood innocence. In Kennedy’s view, this device causes a sort of spatial (or material) amnesia because readers can lose themselves in civic affect. Perhaps it is Drain’s employment of first person that gives more imagined agency to his fictional characters, but I submit that Stateway’s Garden refuses the same superficial empathy and, instead, through its phenomenological perspective and literary style, implicates the reader in potential biases about the value of its bygone space.
Thematically, Stateway’s Garden is first and foremost a narrative about thwarted affections. Tracy and Jacob’s mother is constantly in search of a husband and settles for being the mistress to her Black uptown boss; Tracy seeks his mother’s attention and approval but is constantly brushed aside; and Jacob ends up in a decades-long affair with a neighborhood girl despite the recriminations of his wife. In probably the best-written story, “The Tornado Moat,” young Tracy has his first presexual experience while skipping school with a friend during a rainy day. This loss of innocence is made more innocent by the awkwardness of the characters and their imagination that “[they] were a black couple married and standing proudly in front of [their] parents, or maybe on a majestic honeymoon cruise to some remarkable place [they] couldn’t even spell” (Drain 2020d: 221). Analogous to the unpredictability of the weather, this romantic forecast is thwarted by what we can assume are the caprices of life. What interests me in this story, however, is not that it takes for granted the material and social conditions of the inhabitants but how it replots those conditions into the background of Tracy’s fairytale. Looking out at the rain, Tracy’s love interest says, “There’s so much water out there. . . . Almost looks like the building’s floating” (215). The book cover’s photograph by John H. White portrays this otherworldliness.11 White’s image creates two parallel scenes—the literal one of the housing project with a huge mud puddle in front of it, and its reflection, something mystic: chunks of snow become cloud banks as three males walk across the water. It is as if the housing project has risen into the sky. From the residents’ pragmatic perspective, we are told the water around the project, reflective of poor drainage, “kept the outside world and the police, especially, from risking drowning . . . to stifle the only economy Stateway Gardens people understood” (206). In alluding to a variety of microeconomies, legal and illegal, Drain does not attempt to hide the building’s material conditions from the reader. Yet, the first-person narrator subordinates these to the existential experience of living with them:
On any given floor, there were no banisters to guide and no lights above, addicts supposedly left needles . . . so-called prostitutes not using condoms entered and exited wiping themselves with tissue and adjusting dresses that didn’t fit, and there was always some rumor that the body of a person nobody knew was hidden. . . . I forgot exactly how the stories went. But there was never any evidence of that stuff. Project citizens only shunned those back hallways because the graffiti on walls wasn’t as well done, familiar smells of spoiling garbage were faint. (209)
Drain counteracts common perceptions of public housing interiors with an alternative narrative. In this, a site of “the black interior” is illuminated. By calling into question other stories of what the homes of the Black poor look like, Drain’s fiction thwarts and suspends the reader’s presumption of knowledge, and pity. Even the barrenness of an apartment asks to be read as eccentricity: one room is totally bare; the other contains an excess of furniture—“four dressers, one on each side,” multiple nightstands, and a bed with mattresses stacked so tall, the narrator says, one “would’ve needed a ladder” (213). Just as with Trumbull Park, how rooms are read is dependent upon the characters’ perspective, not merely a sociological or racial framing. The juxtaposition of lack and excess in these descriptions of the building’s interior resists a straightforward reading of class and space.
Drain’s privileging of his characters’ subjective apperception validates their individual perspectives and provides a glimpse into the housing insecurity public housing residents face. An example can be found in the story “The Stateway Condo Gentrification.” Although the setting lends itself to a carceral description (bars across the porches, large rats, and people screaming), Tracy again makes expansive claims about space based on a phenomenological or perceptual understanding. Rather than focus on structural disparities within the built environment, he realizes “millionaires and [he] shared something more important: [their] condo views of the city” (Drain 2020c: 184). These views, only accessible because of the project’s geographic location, are limited; nevertheless, Tracy’s apperception of them invokes a commensurate ownership of city space, if only imaginary: “You could see the entire city from our fourteenth floor ramp: the Sears Tower and Soldier Field, the Hancock Building and Chinatown . . . you could imagine that although you lived in the projects, you were still privy to the prettiest sky box seat [Comiskey Park] could offer. There, you saw the vivid blues, greens, and silvers of fireworks after a home run was hit” (185). Tracy realizes the immediate proximity of these spaces is policed and that physically venturing to Michigan Avenue or the Lakefront means being subjected to criminalization. Furthermore, as the title suggests, real estate schemes targeting the value of those views are an ever-present threat. But from the vantage of his high-rise porch, Tracy and his friends pretend that they are included in the city’s spatial map and even imitate the cultural capital of nearby, wealthier neighbors—the freedom to spend an afternoon sipping on beer and watching the White Sox play. The main tension of the story is the anticipation of a Section 8 voucher that never comes and the parallel “success” of Tracy’s mother in securing a residence financed by her lover, though this means leaving Tracy, fourteen years old, behind in their apartment. Tracy’s “patience” with this arrangement hinges on his sense of belonging at Stateway. His knowledge of its inner workings and the visual citizenship he claims provide a gloomy solace. By continuously situating the project vis-à-vis its surroundings, Tracy reminds the reader that these buildings once took up space. And yet, because the narrative’s subtext is absence—absent mothers, empty mailboxes, and childhoods that get skipped over—it allegorizes the loss of affordable housing from the public domain.
The aesthetics of Drain’s collection reworks recognizable motifs from the canon of black urban literature. Its use of personification is reminiscent of Gloria Naylor’s epilogue “Dusk” (1982), which ends the first novel in her Brewster Place trilogy. In “Dusk,” the disembodied voice tells us, “Brewster Place is abandoned, the living smells worn thin by seasons of winds, the grime and dirt blanketing it in an anonymous shroud” (Naylor 1983: 192). The residents have been scattered by evictions and, likely, the type of intraracial classist attitudes we see in the novel’s sequel, Linden Hills (1986). Although Drain’s epilogue is similar in tone, the omniscience of his focal narrator diverges from Naylor’s by positioning Stateway in the center of urban development, not at the margins. Drain’s first-person-plural narrator, employing the same personification as Naylor’s, proclaims, “We were among the very first skyscrapers. No one ever mentions that kinda thing when we’re discussed” (Drain 2020a: 257). As the epilogue goes on, the identity of this “we” becomes blurred. In one instance, it is characterized as “beige dust”; in another, it anthropomorphizes its resistance to demolition (“We all really did try”) (266). Drain’s prose, then, like Naylor’s, serves to honor the memory of this space. Like Brown, Drain connects the specific setting of public housing to black radicalism. The entire collection alludes to the actual protest of hundreds of Stateway Garden residents who engaged in direct action for nearly ten years before their buildings were finally torn down.
Similar to Trumbull Park, Stateway’s Garden incorporates structural aspects of the bildungsroman. In fact, it is one of many coming-of-age-narratives written in the 2000s and set in public housing.12 The bildungsroman, most simply, allegorizes modernity through the maturation of the protagonist (Esty 2011: 149). It presents, as M. M. Bakhtin (1986: 24) describes, “the image of [a] man in the process of becoming” who must change to some degree as the world around them does. Whether through activism, violence, grief, or economic motivation, these more contemporary public housing narratives illustrate characters who struggle to mature amid both environmental and social turbulence. If these narratives are too easily dismissed as young adult or “street” literature (i.e., genre fiction), literary critics might miss what these texts contribute to our study of urban life. One coming-of-age novel that has attracted far less scholarly attention than it deserves is Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever (1999).13 Published forty years after the golden era of public housing, after the budget-slashing of the Reagan years and the 1992 launch of HOPE VI that condemned public housing’s high-rises, Souljah provides an equally complex valorization of the built environment from the protagonist’s point of view. While by the 1990s, the representation of public high-rises in cultural and media discourse had ossified into the image of a consistently tragic landscape, Souljah’s (2010: 1) narrator depicts Brooklyn public housing as a dynamic cultural space where “the smell of fried chicken collided with the smell of codfish and ackee” and where the reader is refused “sob stories . . . about rats and roaches and pissy-pew hallways.” The novel’s language, though indulgent and brash, directly retranslates imagery from the genre of black urbanism (think Ann Petry’s The Street ). It illustrates the various levels of precarity within a low-income space that are intersectional not only by race, gender, and class but also by one’s proximity to (or distance from) the top of a particular street’s power structure. It also coheres with both the determinism of literary naturalism and the didactic voice of the black protest tradition.14 Most importantly, it diverges from the predominantly male perspective of twentieth-century black urbanity and shows its female protagonist navigating the street’s oppressive gendered matrix. Public housing narratives of development are a unique site to study how Black people (and Black writers) synthesize the cultural and aesthetic concerns of a particular era, whether the era of civil rights or hip hop. They frequently incorporate vernacular idioms, practices, and narrative structures that reflect the Black sensibility of the time period.
I have focused on fiction by African American authors in this essay but not with the intent to delimit the literary lineage I am threading. Equally interesting and integral to this spatial map are books such as Warren Miller’s The Cool World (1959), Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943), Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), and Richard Price’s Clockers (1992). These texts complicate questions of commodification, objecthood, subjectivity, and, obviously, race from the perspective of public housing tenants. Hubert Selby Jr.’s coda in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) invites discussion of surveillance and governmentality, in addition to how public housing spaces facilitate and restrict queer transgressions. Discursively and politically, nonfiction texts such as There Are No Children Here; David Simon and Edward Burns’s The Corner (1998), from which the HBO series The Wire was derived; and Ben Austen’s High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing (2019) can be read against public housing novels for their phenomenological orientations and critique of poverty. In addition, recent photo-histories such as Cabrini Green in Words and Pictures (2000) and Project Lives (2015), employing qualitative methods like oral history and photovoice, contain thick descriptions and imagery that counter the bodiless “beautiful ruins” of Camilo José Vergara’s dark cityscapes where public housing developments are among those buildings that stand empty.
Baldwin (1961: 64) claimed, “the projects . . . are an insult to the meanest intelligence.” Respectfully, I contend the greater insult is to dismiss public housing both as a form of shelter in the twenty-first century and as a site for encountering oppositional histories of urban space. Without ignoring the problems of racialization, economic neglect, and social violence, public housing fiction like Trumbull Park and Stateway’s Garden establishes a sense of place based on a value that is phenomenological. Value is arbitrary, albeit its arbitrariness can reveal the false suppositions of normative boundaries usually associated with the material (Barrett 2009: 16). Under both liberal and neoliberal ideals, uneven development and its impact on geographies can lead to spatial erasure and amnesia. These examples of public housing fiction amplify the importance of geocultural memory by mediating resident attitudes that counter stereotypical assumptions.
Gavin Jones (2007: 3) has argued that studies of poverty should proceed by acknowledging the state of “socioeconomic suffering,” though this may create ethical dilemmas for literary critics whose methodologies have traditionally emphasized form and culture over the materiality of need. While Jones concedes that “poverty is also intertwined with questions of selfhood, being, and language,” he looks to theorize the “struggle against a universal, metaphysical understanding of lack, and toward an understanding of need as a specific kind of suffering” (4). Usefully, he points us to the uncertainty that literary theories of class often displace onto the more presumably political categories of ontology, culture, race, and gender (14). However, somewhat predictably, he turns to Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and Twelve Million Black Voices (1941) to assert that Wright’s depictions of the constancy of need are complicated to the extent that these African American narratives of northern migration and urban survival flout a simple progression of cultural and existential assimilation into the upper classes (147). The conclusion of this chapter makes the claim that “any minority tradition of writing, if founded in substantive forces of social marginalization and institutional exclusion, must inevitably bring the intellectual, emotional, and cultural trauma of material deprivation into textual sentience” (147, emphasis mine). In emphasizing trauma as the primary lens through which to understand minority genres about poverty, Jones inadvertently inculcates the same risk he warns us to avoid. That is, how do we write about the lived experience of poverty without fetishizing any particular aspect of the experience from an outsider point of view? The phenomenological lens I have advocated for in this essay widens the options we have for interpreting what is an extremely complicated status. Based on income level, educational attainment, and access to resources, some public housing residents will always fit the category of the socioeconomically disadvantaged. However, the space of public housing and depictions of it require a historical analysis of class and race mixture, since tenants have migrated in and out of these structures for various reasons. Relatedly, it is impossible to overlook the imposition of cultural stereotypes when assessing this environment unless one looks from the inside out. Since American public housing comprises multiple ethnicities but is most frequently associated with Black people, then it seems in order to move beyond pathological analytics, it is necessary to start from an oppositional orientation. That is, how do public housing narratives represent tenants’ understanding of their own situations? How do we take this understanding on its own terms? Suffering, hypervisibility, and lack are important theoretical categories. But so are community, nostalgia, and pride. The phenomenological method would demand bracketing these profiles of the experience just as one would notice different aspects of the architecture when walking around a building.
Public housing is one of the most controversial spaces of the twentieth century. While its visibility in the American landscape is quickly disappearing, public housing narratives remind us that American cities still and should contain diverse housing arrangements and spaces. The structures of feeling that come to light in these narratives may not fit Michael Denning’s spectrum of the “ghetto pastoral,”15 but they endow their depicted neighborhoods with a sense of locally grounded affect. Thinking through public housing fiction as an extension of the black urban narrative helps to demystify the nuances of urban spatiality and the range of socioeconomics that propel modern cities. Moreover, the range in context and aesthetics works against the flatness of the ghetto as a floating signifier of blackness.
I want to think Bill Maxwell for introducing me to Trumbull Park in graduate school, Bo McMillan for passing along Last Exit to Brooklyn, and the Cabrini LAC for the slice of neighborhood and community they have shared with me over the years through their eyes.
“The phenomenological attitude,” starting with the “I,” moves from the subjective to the universal; it travels from a personal interaction with objects to the acknowledgement of a higher order of dwelling, which is a shared experience (Sokolowski 2000: 12).
For example, the date of Baldwin’s essay and its allusion to privately funded public housing indicate a moment in social housing history when the Federal Housing Administration began subsidizing home mortgages to promote White families moving to suburbs but simultaneously began to withdraw from its role as a public housing landlord. Black people recognized and felt their exclusion from these programs and their abandonment in concentrated city centers. The shift from civil rights to more radical black nationalist movements converged with this policy change and added pressure to conceptions of what counted as a true home.
In 1935, Techwood Homes was constructed in Atlanta as the first public housing to include nonmilitary families, but 500 Black families were forcibly displaced from their mixed-race neighborhood to make room for these buildings because the development was designated “White only” (Rothstein 2017: 21).
The neighborhood composition rule (a policy that these new housing developments mirror the demographics of their intended location) was proposed by African American Harold Ickes (Hirsch 2021: 14). Ironically, Ickes’s advocacy was intended to include Black families in the government’s plan to address the national housing shortage. According to Arnold R. Hirsch (2021: 14), Ickes wanted to ensure that Black renters would have an equal chance to inhabit the new housing stock without surrounding Black homeowners being forced out. However, the argument created precedent for local housing authorities to continue de facto Jim Crow, even arbitrarily ascribing some buildings as “Black” and others as “White” within the same complex (14).
See D. Bradford Hunt’s encyclopedia entry, “Trumbull Park Homes Race Riots, 1953–1954”: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/2461.html.
Sterling Stuckey (1969: 4–5), a friend of Brown’s, lauds both Brown’s literary talent and commitment to social justice in his foreword to Brown’s posthumous novel, The Myth Maker (1969). Brown was a union activist with the United Packinghouse Workers of America; a journalist for the Chicago Defender, Ebony, and Jet; a voting rights organizer as a student at Roosevelt University; and a housing rights protester while teaching at the University of Chicago. His activism is well-documented.
Arnold R. Hirsch (2021: 145) outlines the University of Chicago’s partnership with the mayor and the Hyde Park Planning Committee in aggressively drawing lines around the campus and even surveying residents on their attitudes about possible race mixture in the area.
Mario Gooden (2016) provides this history before elaborating on the intervention of black architecture.
Baker’s framing, extended through an analysis of Native Son, seems to be formulated from geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1977), who argued place is constituted by one’s ability to set one’s own boundaries.
Washington (1999: xiv) argues that both men and women achieve agency through the contribution to the group’s collective organizing, denoting that “women are given two major political speeches” in the book. Brown does represent the political awareness of his female characters, but, overall, the novel still ends up valorizing traditional masculinity wherein men forge their gender identities through physical danger, competition, and female approval.
Untitled, April 9, 1981. Photo captured for White’s portfolio series, Chicago Housing Projects. Original held by The Chicago History Museum.
Other novels include Tuff (2000) by Paul Beatty, Amiri and Odette (2009) by Walter Dean Myers, The Stars Beneath Our Feet (2017) by David Barclay Moore, and the lesser-known My Manz and ‘Em (2010) by J. M. Benjamin.
Stephane Dunn (2012: 84), who has written a rich analysis of The Coldest Winter Ever, attests, “Souljah’s novel bridges the gap between the African American literary canon and contemporary black pop fiction, between the academic and popular, while being concerned with elevating the mass audience’s critical consciousness to provoke transformative thinking and action.” Dunn takes seriously the novel’s literary qualities as a feature of the cultural aesthetics of Black feminist theory.
Rather than using free and indirect discourse to ruminate on the mores of society (however hypocritical those mores may be), Souljah inserts herself as a character to convey moral stances to the reader, against which the narrator, Winter, reacts. These stances include condemnation of racism and capitalism, which protest novels typically include. In the kind of karmic inevitability of naturalism, Winter is confronted by another young woman who blames Winter for her misfortune. When the girl appears for her vengeance, Souljah’s formulation of the routinized violence of the city recalls James R. Giles’s (1995) construct of the “fat man,” the abrupt introduction of the urban sublime in naturalist novels that foreshadows the protagonist’s subsumption. Winter reels from “the overweight acrobrat” and the entourage she brings with her (“four wild mommas in black jeans and bright yellow hoodies, charging toward [Winter] like killer bees” [Souljah 2010: 155]). And, indeed, it is this young woman who later leads to Winter’s arrest and the novel’s denouement.
Denning (2010) theorizes the ghetto pastoral as an extension of the ethnic immigrant novel, able to capture both the romance and the grittiness of the slum. His formulation emphasizes the quotidian nature of many of these novels and their ability to integrate new and old literary forms, modern and postmodern mythology, and vernacular idioms demarking neighborhood, such as Little Italy (231). Where contemporary public housing narratives may differ is through the break that hip-hop culture and the logic of multinational capitalism introduce. Beatty’s Tuff, for example, also includes a satirical postsoul intonation that, rather than confirm the authenticity of ethnic identity, plays with straightforward notions of race and place.