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.

photo: Patricia Evans

photo: Patricia Evans


In the gripping first-person accounts of High Rise Stories, former residents of Chicago’s iconic public housing describe life in the now-demolished high-rises. These twelve narrators reconstruct their homes and neighborhoods, and they intricately map their passages out of them. Their complex stories of community, displacement, and survival give voice to those whose hopes and struggles exist firmly at the heart of our national identity.



Illustrations from the book by Julien Lallemand

Illustrations from the book by Julien Lallemand


"Lest we are tempted to think because the public housing towers are no longer there that they never existed, High Rise Stories captures the memories that defy demolition. The former residents are neither sentimental nor spiteful, just truthful about the ups and downs of their lives and the lives of the buildings they lived in."

— Mary Patillo, author of Black on The Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City


“Joyful, novelistic, and deeply moving. High Rise Stories radically expanded my understanding of human beings.”

— George Saunders, author of Tenth of December

“An important book and a very moving read.”

— Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps

“This book accomplishes its mission to give voice to public-housing residents tenfold but is equally successful as a significant work of American urban history.

— Booklist


“Bypassing the official narrative of enlightened urban 'transformation'—as well as the social scientific folklore and magical thinking about 'mixed income communities' deployed to support it—Audrey Petty has done something radical: she has simply and deeply listened to residents.”

— Jamie Kalven, writer and activist


Excerpt from an essay by Roxane Gay published in The Nation

The high-rise public housing projects of Chicago have long carried their own myths. In High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing, Audrey Petty, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side during the 1980s, has edited and compiled the stories of twelve former residents of the demolished projects, torn down as part of a redevelopment project that has not been nearly as successful as was envisioned. The neglect of Chicago public housing has only continued. “Defunded by city, state, and federal governments over the course of the 1970s forward, high rise public housing was chronically neglected and mismanaged…. These problems were compounded by ongoing crises that occasionally made the nightly news: rampant gang drug dealing, turf wars, and gun violence.” This neglected, violence-ridden place is the one most people imagine when they think of the high-rise projects, but families, actual people lived in those buildings. In this volume, we get to hear their stories. As a whole, the collection is gripping, and nuanced and unexpectedly moving.

Dolores Wilson lived in Cabrini Green for fifty-three years with her husband and children. Though there was violence (“Snipers were a problem for many years”) there was also a vibrant community. Her husband coached basketball and baseball teams. There was a drum-and-bugle corps, and well-organized building councils that did their best to fight the violence and governmental neglect. Her family not only lived in Cabrini Green, they thrived. Eddie Leman lived with his mother in Robert Taylor Homes. In his conversation with Petty, he talked about the dangerous elevators, and his having to keep up his home because his mother was a drug addict. He made it out of the projects and joined the Marines. When he left the military, he started working in mental health, noting, “Living in Robert Taylor, you’re under a lot of stress and you learn to adapt, but there are people you get to know who have their own difficulties and sometimes the pressure is too much…. By the time I started therapeutic work, I had pretty much run across mental illness already.” Leman also worked as a sheriff, did well, but life has a way of getting in the way. He was involved in a theft in 2003 and was sentenced to seven years in prison. These days, Leman is in graduate school, working, raising a family, and all he wants is to live “anywhere I don’t have to watch my back. It’s been so long since I relaxed.” Each of the twelve stories in High Rise Stories reveals the simplicity of what so many people want and are denied.