“How to Navigate These War Zones We’re Living In”: A Conversation with Toya Wolfe

July 5, 2022   •   By Amy Danzer

IT WAS THE summer of 1999 in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, the largest housing project in the city — at one time, the largest in the country. An estimated 27,000 residents lived in its 28 16-story buildings, with their 4,000-plus apartments. An effort by the federal government to help the poor, the project instead separated and isolated them from the rest of the city’s resources and opportunities, sending them into far more complex states of impoverishment. It was nearly two miles of urban planning and public policy gone wrong: gangs, drugs, rape, violence, helplessness, hopelessness.

But in Last Summer on State Street, the debut novel from Chicago-based author Toya Wolfe, the blights of racial inequality, struggle, and heartbreak coexist alongside teachers who ask what you want out of life, big brothers who read bedtime stories to their siblings, mothers who apply pressing combs to their daughter’s hair, give makeovers to their daughter’s friends, and take them on bus trips into the city to give them a glimpse of a world beyond the block. There are snow cones, candy trucks, and jump rope games, living-room Bible studies, Bud Billiken Day Parades, and girlhood friendships. Last Summer on State Street centers on Felicia (Fe Fe) Stevens and her three friends as gang wars blitz their girlhood and government wrecking balls begin to erase their neighborhood.

I sat down with Toya Wolfe recently to talk about her book and the Robert Taylor Homes, which are now just fields of grass, without any kind of historical marker indicating the landmark the housing project once was. We talked about urban planning fails, the compulsion of flight, and Kendrick Lamar’s father, among other things.

Author photo by Leicester Mitchell.

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AMY DANZER: What would you say was the biggest failure of the Robert Taylor Homes planners?

TOYA WOLFE: I think it was super complicated, but if you let people move into a property that you stop maintaining, what do you think is going to happen? At some point, elevators were not being repaired. Whenever there were these sorts of issues, they were not fixed. Then there were drugs and gangs — deterioration without any real helpful intervention. The Homes were also sitting in a very sweet location. You could get downtown in about 20 minutes. So, if you’re a person who works downtown, it’s like, “Why are ‘these’ people sitting on this great real estate?” Instead of being able to see that people aren’t caring for this property, and it’s causing other problems socially, it’s like, “These people are terrible and we’ve got to get them out of this area and we’ve got to tear these buildings down.”

I read something somewhere about the high number of children and unemployed adults who wound up living in the Robert Taylor Homes, how planners lacked the foresight to consider how those two things could impact a community.

Yeah, they built a playground and play spaces for families, but did they think about population growth? About the future when kids would grow up and need their own places? When it comes down to people who aren’t valued in the first place, people aren’t going to spend the money to maintain the spaces. Same with Cabrini–Green and Henry Horner, and Pruitt–Igoe in St. Louis — in some of these Midwestern cities, it’s the same story of a hands-off approach to maintenance, so things kind of just ran into the ground.

What stands on that ground now?

Some very healthy grass — which is fascinating to me because it’s now been over a couple of decades since the first demolitions. There was a new tennis facility built across from Beasley Elementary, but that’s the first new development in all this time, and it’s way down on the other end where Robert Taylor would have ended. But, yeah, the last time I was over there, it was just fields of grass.

There’s a lot about church and God in your book. What was the influence of religion on your writing?

We were Seventh-day Adventists since I was born, meaning there were Bibles everywhere, Christian symbolism everywhere, we would go to church on Saturdays. I’m used to growing up around Black people who pray when things get tough and who praise when things are awesome. It’s in our language. It’s steeped in our culture.

One of my first childhood friends was a Jehovah’s Witness and our families were like, “You’re not a Seventh-day Adventist!” and, “You’re not a Jehovah’s Witness!” — and we could play with each other, but we understood those boundaries. I wish someone had told us about the common ground … I wanted to try that out in the book. What would it be like for 12-year-olds to talk about God, faith, and religion, and what could that look like in a season of wonder for them?

Tell me about the motif of flight in your book.

I love that word because the very first thing that comes to mind when you say the word “flight” is the stairs. We use this language: “three flights of stairs,” “I had to walk up 15 flights.” But when you said “flight” just now, I thought about Native Son. One of the sections in the book is “Flight,” and it refers to Bigger on the lam. There’s so much running and lam-ism in my book: Fe Fe running away from Stacia, Fe Fe trying to catch up with her brother. Sidebar: It was super important to me to show these girls being very active and adventurous, because when you see girls in literature and on TV, they’re usually victims, they’re pining for boys, they’re trying to be loved by their dads, they are not doing anything! [Laughs.] But these girls, they’re chasing each other, jumping over stuff.

But then there’s this question of “should I flee my community or hometown?” which a lot of us have to wrestle with, because sometimes your success makes you unfit to live where you actually grew up. I haven’t had to wrestle with this specifically, because my neighborhood was torn down, but if the Robert Taylor Homes were still intact, I probably wouldn’t live across the street from them.

Last Summer on State Street also features characters who stayed in the neighborhood, like Ms. Pierce and Mama Pearl. Could you say something about those characters and what they mean to you?

When I was growing up in this golden era, sure, our books were falling apart, but our teachers were solid. They wanted to be there, and they stayed for decades. I had a teacher who inspired Ms. Pierce, someone who went to the principal and said, “Hey, I want to keep my kids for three years and then start over. I’m going to teach my kids for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade and then I’m going to start over and teach that cohort.” So, now she’s teaching whole families and you get to be with this teacher for three years and she sends you off to high school and you go off to high school being trained up by someone. So, there’s people like that, and then you have people like Mama Pearl who, because she’s lived on State Street in those buildings for decades, it’s like home, and she’s learned how to navigate when the knuckleheads are out doing foolish things. So, “Okay, I’m going to get up and in my Buick at 5:00 a.m. because nobody’s out, and when I come home, if things are crackin’, I’ve got this pistol in my purse.” We sort of learn how to navigate these war zones that we’re living in, so it’s more comfortable for her to stay in a place that she knows really well than to go out into society and live somewhere else. People stay for different reasons.

The novel mostly centers around Fe Fe Stevens — a 12-year-old girl — and her girlfriends. But we also learn about Fe Fe’s brother Meechie. What went into creating that portrait?

I wanted to tell the story of what it was like in the ’90s to be a Black boy in inner city Chicago with gangs all around you. When I was growing up, if you had a promising basketball career or there was potential that you would go to college, gangs would leave you alone. Everybody else was a potential street soldier, and gangbangers would come after them. These are things you would find out as a mom or sister later on in life, but your brother would probably be chased down and attacked when he was out of sight, because these gangs wanted him to join. It was important for me to tell the story that she had a brother who had this happening to him. It gives a different perspective on kids wrapped up in gangs. You really have no idea how they ended up there, or if they wanted to be there in the first place. In some cases, there wasn’t even recruitment; depending on where you lived, you were automatically in that gang. I wanted us to get to know Meechie as a brother, as a son, as a student, before he was just a gangbanger.

In his 2014 book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson writes that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” So much of his book is about redemption, and so is yours.

There are Black men and women who have been locked up since they were 12 years old. [Starts to cry.] They did something stupid, and they’re still in jail. One of the biggest tragedies I saw growing up is that you make one tiny mistake and your life is over. Because when you go to jail, you’ve got to commit more crimes so that you can live. It’s just a disgusting cycle when a judge could have said I’m going to give you another chance and your life could have been different. This gift of redemption shouldn’t be ours to pass, anyway; it’s a God thing. But also, if you’re going to be in a relationship with people, in community with them, you have to learn how to forgive them.

What has writing this book done for or meant to you?

Top of mind is that I just wrote a brief history of the Robert Taylor Homes. I didn’t set out to do that, but we’re at a time when you can mention Robert Taylor Homes and people might not know what you’re talking about. I just put down on paper a place that has been erased and a people who are so scattered. I also learned that, “Man, we’re like in a fraternity!” We’re scattered, but because we’re creatures of habit, we still hang out in the same places. There are areas where you might run into somebody who grew up in Robert Taylor or who might know somebody who grew up in Robert Taylor. One day when I talk with Kendrick Lamar, I’m going to ask, “What building your dad live in?”

Did you have an audience in mind when writing the book? Or is there an audience you hope this book reaches out to or connects with?

I didn’t have a specific audience in mind, but I will say this: I am going to be overjoyed when little Black kids hear their voices in these characters. On a more aspirational note, hopefully it can start some conversations among people who don’t come from this community. They can start processing what it makes them feel or what it makes them learn if they learn new things.

Do you see yourself as a Chicago writer?

I’m going to be Chicago till I die … and when I think about future projects, they’re all Chicago books. But I also identify as a Black woman writer. The stuff I’m interested in writing about concerns Black women. In the most general of ways, if you identify as a woman and you are Black, these are our stories.

So, who are some of your influences as a writer?

When I think about Black Chicago writers — I love Gwendolyn Brooks’s work; she is the queen of Bronzeville imagery. She’s a very important writer to me. Richard Wright’s Native Son was set in neighborhoods I know really well, even though it’s set in the 1940s. There’s also Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. She was writing about a neighborhood that wasn’t my neighborhood, but it was a neighborhood, and from a girl’s point of view. So, I look at that book, and Native Son, and Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry, and I feel like they’re my three anchors. But it’s also the other Black women writers who showed me what it’s like to write about where you grew up: Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara.

Final question for you, boring question, what’s next?

I’m working on a few TV pilots. Later this year, I’m going to start my next novel. All I can tell you is that it’s also set in Chicago — in a few Chicago neighborhoods that don’t often get any sort of characterization, like the West Side, or Chatham, or what it’s like to live in Hyde Park with a few roommates, or what it’s like to live as a Black person on the North Side. I’m in a generative mode but also looking forward to having a lot of cool conversations about Last Summer on State Street. But, more writing, that’s what’s next.

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Amy Danzer works at Northwestern University where she manages several master’s degree programs and directs the Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference. She serves on the board of directors for the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs and as board president of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. She also interviews authors for Newcity and The Rumpus, at bookstores and literary festivals.