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Book review: “Last Summer on State Street” by Toya Wolfe

Toya Wolfe’s debut novel Last Summer on State Street is a harrowing, poignant and visceral evocation of life and death in the Robert Taylor public housing development in its final days of demolition.

Published in mid-2022 in hardcover and reissued recently as a paperback by HarperCollins, the book is being honored on July 15 when Wolfe will receive the second annual $25,000 Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award, created to celebrate works that transform public understanding of Chicago, its history, and its people.

The presentation of the hefty prize — which is significantly more than for a National Book Award ($10,000) or for a Pulitzer Prize ($15,000) — will take place at a free, public event from 1 pm to 4:30 pm at the Newberry Library in Bughouse Square across from the Newberry Library. 

During the event, Wolfe, who grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, will discuss her novel with Gail Kern Paster, Interim President and Librarian at the Newberry which is a joint sponsor of the award with the Pattis Family Foundation.

Last Summer on State Street is an unusual and all but unexpected book and a fitting choice for a prize to bring attention to works that help people better understand Chicago and its past.

Being wiped off the face of Chicago

For more than eighty years, Chicago’s public housing has been the subject of a regular stream of non-fiction books, detailing in particular the social destructiveness and failures of its high-rises.  Indeed, the bleak history of the construction of CHA high-rises as a tool of civic racism is one of the main subjects of Thomas Leslie’s important and insightful Chicago Skyscrapers 1934-1986: How Technology, Politics, Finance, & Race Reshaped the City, published in June by University of Illinois Press.

Few works of fiction, however, have focused on Chicago’s public house, and, as far as I am aware, no other one has tackled life in a CHA skyscraper with the nuance and depth that Wolfe has brought to her writing.

The irony is that this novel about public housing life details a year when the residents of the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side, just east of the Dan Ryan Expressway — a complex of 28 skyscrapers, the largest public housing development in the world — were living through the destruction of their homes, one building at a time.  When, after standing along the Dan Ryan like a visible wall of racial segregation for half a century, the Taylor Homes and other CHA high-rise developments were being wiped off the face of Chicago.

“Papa put ‘em up.”

Felicia Ann Stevens, known as Fe Fe, is a youth minister in California in her thirties, as she recalls that summer of 1999, two decades earlier, when she and her three best friends — Precious, Stacia and Tonya — were 12-year-old and loved to play jump rope together.

They all lived in the 16-story building at 4950 S. State St.  Fe Fe and Precious grew up there, but Stacia and Tonya had recently moved in because their buildings were being torn down.  One afternoon, the demolition of Tonya’s old building next door was starting, and the people at 4950 watched.

In fact, everyone seemed to be on break from what they usually did on the block.  Gangsters paused drug sales and just stared.  Crackheads, winos, and little old ladies were there, looking too….We all looked up at the ball swinging from a metal cord, breaking apart the building’s sharp angles.  Some people watched and let their minds wander. 

Others, though, engaged in a running commentary, such as one resident who blamed Mayor Richard M. Daley for backing the demolition plans and recalled that his father Mayor Richard J. Daley had built the structures: “Papa put ‘em up. Junior knocked ‘em down.”

“Bury our heads in this joy”

Also present was Lucille Perkins, a friend of Fe Fe’s late grandmother and called Mama Pearl.  Now in her 70s, she had lived at 4950 for half a century.

Over the years, she’d watched cute little kids grow up to become fiends or drink themselves to death, dying in their forties.  She’d seen descendants of her best friends ruin their family names, one generation at a time.  For Mama Pearl, it wasn’t just about the demolition of iron gates and bricks; what had already broken her heart was the destruction of so many families over the years.

And, even as the four girls watched, a fight broke out among the crowd watching the demolition. A woman named Tootie hit a guy over the head with a bottle of Crown Royal, and the crowd turned on her, stomping her to death.

The four girls fled to the third floor and the open space between the elevators where they jumped rope, trying to forget what they had seen.

So, for a few hours, we had fun, without any more drama.  Jumping rope and playing these hand games were our only real distraction from the ongoing demolition of the neighborhood, and as much as we could bury our heads in this joy, we did.

Its own community

The key word there is “neighborhood.” 

To outsiders, the CHA skyscrapers were scorned as vertical slums, as breeding grounds for crime, violence and drug use.  But, to residents, each high-rise — like an elegant residential tower for rich folk along the lakefront — was its own community, perhaps even more so because, unlike the affluent lakefront residents, those living in public housing had much less freedom of movement, economically and socially.

Fe Fe remembers Woody and Earl, two winos who lived in the building and “could really sing.”  She explains:

We loved the way their voices sounded in the stairway, a layered echo.  They sang songs we recognized as the “dusties” that made the soundtrack of our hairdos and cleaning days….This day, Woody and Earl harmonized a tune from the Spinners called “Games People Play.” Not long after they’d passed by with their sweet song, we heard the rumbling of a stampede.

It was three boys — Ricky, Derrick and Jon Jon — who were good at sports and also liked to join the girls to jump rope.  Simple innocent fun, but this was the summer, as Fe Fe relates, “when everything terrible started.”

Bearing the unbearable

Last Summer on State Street is a painful and wrenching novel about the daily life that those four girls lived as they were growing toward adulthood “around some wild people.”  It is a novel that recounts gang battles, murder and rape, false arrest and the bloody remnants of a police raid, drug use and child abuse and fractured families.

At its heart, though, this is a book about resilience — an over-used word today, but apt here because Fe Fe and many of the characters in her story find ways to bear the unbearable, to find survival through the chaos. 

Fe Fe escapes because she has a strict mother, and finds a strong faith community, and is smart enough, adaptable enough and lucky enough to get into a good high school and then head to college and a career. 

Some friends die.  Some are locked into hard lives.  Some, including her only sibling, a brother called Meechie, end up in prison. 

Open-minded and compassionate

Fe Fe sees the inside of a crime family and the damage the family members do to her high-rise community.  But she is open-minded and compassionate enough to recognize how they are damaged by their own choices — and to recognize that this criminal family, like Fe Fe herself, have been victimized by Chicago’s civic racism, segregation and hardheartedness.

This is a book about African Americans. The only whites who appear in Last Summer on State Street are among the police who raid Fe Fe’s building searching for gangbangers. 

Yet, this is a novel to be read by white Chicagoans — and whites anywhere — for the lesson it teaches about the toll that racism takes on its victims.  A novel about the past that should strike thoughts about the present.

Last Summer on State Street is, in truth, a work to transform public understanding of Chicago, its history, and its people.  Are Chicagoans open to being transformed?

Patrick T. Reardon

7.13.23

This review was originally published at Third Coast Review on 7.10.23.

1 Comment

  • Angela
    Posted December 17, 2023 at 1:12 am

    I ordered the. I am middle aged white woman. That lives in Illinois. When I had my son 25 years ago. I was single mother dependent of Public Aid. Because I am white being poor is a lot easier. Racism makes it worse and so does segregation. More people like myself need to read more about. The lives of poor people of color face every day.

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