Audrey Petty

Audrey Petty is a writer and educator. She writes fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction. Her stories have been published in such journals as African American Review, StoryQuarterly, Callaloo, and The Massachusetts Review. Her poetry has been featured in Crab Orchard Review and Cimarron Review, and her essays have appeared in Saveur, ColorLines, The Southern Review, Oxford American, Cornbread Nation 4, Gravy, and the Best Food Writing anthology. She is the editor of High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing (Voice of Witness/McSweeney's).

Audrey has been awarded a residency at the Hedgebrook Colony, the Richard Soref Scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Tennessee Williams Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she's also been the recipient of fellowships and grants from the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council and the Hewlett Foundation.


from High Rise Stories (excerpt 1)

      Illustrations: Julien Lallemand

      Illustrations: Julien Lallemand

When the high rise buildings came down, footage of the demolition was posted on YouTube. There you can find—in montage, time-lapse, or real time—various stages of destruction of the Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, Rockwell Gardens, Grace Abbott Homes, Cabrini-Green, Lakefront Properties. There are videos of each high rise of Lakefront Properties being felled by implosion. Collapse occurs not all at once, but gradually, horizontally, with thick, smoky vapors of dust rising in the wake. Other public housing structures were dismantled with cranes, excavators, backhoes. Aside from the jackhammers briskly knocking through windows and concrete, so much of the machinery seems weary. In one video, a wrecking ball appears to move in slow motion as it swings back and then lands, crushing a wall painted robin’s egg blue.
When the high rises came down, there was official talk about progress. What was afoot was the Plan for Transformation: a $1.6 billion project and the largest public housing “redevelopment venture” in the United States. Announced in 1999, the ambitious plan reflected and reinforced national trends; many municipal governments in major cities (like New Orleans and Atlanta) demolished swaths of public housing structures and replaced them with voucher distribution programs and limited access to mixed-income developments. The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) unveiled a major advertising campaign to promote its agenda, rebranding itself with a slogan “This is CHAnge” and promising impacted CHA tenants, and the city at large, a fresh start. In Chicago, mirroring other neoliberal efforts across the country, planners have relied on the market to regulate the terms of what has been touted as full-scale reform. The vast majority of those directly impacted by wide-scale demolitions have been required to seek out housing in the private sector. For thousands, the outcomes have included displacement, multiple moves, and homelessness. In the current economy, the poverty rate is higher than ever in Chicago, as is the need for affordable housing.

from High Rise Stories (excerpt 2)

AGE: 83

- - -

We first meet on a sunny day in March 2011, at a coffeehouse situated about a mile north of Dolores’s new apartment in the Dearborn Homes. Dearborn Homes is a public housing complex situated at the crossroads between Bronzeville (to the south), the McCormick Place convention center (to the east), Chinatown (to the west), and the Chicago Loop (to the north). Dearborn Homes was one of the Chicago Housing Authority’s first public housing developments and remains one of the last standing—it now houses mostly senior residents. Dolores was relocated here last month after living in Cabrini-Green for the last fifty-three years, from 1958 until 2011. As we talk, Dolores is clearly distraught at the thought of her old building’s scheduled demolition. “So many of my treasures are still there,” she says. She goes on to catalog some of the valuables (family photos, trophies, clothing, books) that she had to leave behind during the hasty relocation process. Days after our conversation, 1230 N. Burling—Dolores’s former home, and one of the last public housing high rises left standing in Chicago—was demolished.

from "Have You Been Served?"

Owned by Quaker Oats Foods since 1926, Aunt Jemima received her most recent corporate makeover in 1989. Slimmed-down, younger, and relieved of her bandana, she now sports a sleek hairdo and pearl earrings. As always, she flashes a warm, inviting smile.
Aunt Jemima made her debut at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, played by Nancy Green. A cook and former slave, Green recited plantation stories and gave pancake-cooking demonstrations for the crowds. But in the public imagination, Aunt Jemima needed no introduction, because her image had circulated for a century or more.
Mammy is dead. Mammy endures. And Mammy never was.