GRAND BOULEVARD — What do you do when a story refuses to let you go?
For Toya Wolfe, what began as a classroom assignment became a 15-year journey culminating into a bittersweet coming-of-age novel, “Last Summer on State Street.”
Wolfe’s popular debut has just won the second annual Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award, with an award ceremony this Saturday at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St.
The award-winning author takes readers back to the edge of the 20th century as a South Side preteen navigates friendships with her girls while trying to hold on to her troubled older brother, with the rapidly disappearing Robert Taylor Homes serving as a backdrop.
Protagonist FeFe finds herself straddling a childhood she isn’t ready to leave behind and an adolescence she isn’t quite prepared for, serving as a shy, pensive linchpin determined to keep her crew — Hood Princess Stacia, Church Girl Precious and newcomer Tonya together.
Wolfe said she didn’t set out to write a coming-of-age story, but one “poured out of her.” The acclaimed author drew from her experience living in the Robert Taylor Homes with girls like her characters, stories of tragedy but of hope as well.
“My undergrad degree is in creative writing. I went to Columbia [College in Chicago], and it was such a phenomenal program where you had to do all this writing inside of your classes. You were coming up with a story in class, you were reading novels like a writer and you had to do all these exercises. There was a very specific structure in fiction with all these building blocks. It gets to the point where every time we have an exercise, I was returning to these girls who are running around the Robert Taylor Homes. So I got to know these characters very well,” Wolfe said.
Soon she found herself asking questions about the quartet. “What do their apartments look like?” “Who are their siblings?” “What were their goals?” Over time, the puzzle pieces that began as short stories started to fit, creating a fuller picture and her first novel.
Wolfe captures the vibrancy of a community fighting with and for one another as the public housing complex they’ve called home comes down around them, families shuffled off to unfamiliar neighborhoods on unfriendly terrain.
It’s also a reflection of real-life events. The dozen or so highrises that once dotted the State Street corridor would be demolished over the course of a decade, the last tower falling in 2007 as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation. Thousands of displaced Robert Taylor residents would feel the effects for years to come.
The Low End author deftly explores issues like class, sexual assault and police violence during a time when it was normal for police to execute surprise raids on public housing residents under suspicion of committing a crime. In one scene, FeFe describes a harrowing encounter as officers swarm the family’s two-bedroom apartment looking for drugs and guns, the incident further fracturing the bond between her and her brother, Meechie.
“This is how it happened at the Robert Taylor Homes. The police would sweep through the buildings, bang on doors and if you opened the door — similar to the rule about opening doors for vampires — you’d have to let them in. Kicking your door down would be proof of excessive force, so they couldn’t do that because they didn’t have a warrant. So they’d just come in and search your house,” recalled Wolfe, who lived in the complex until college.
Wolfe said it was important to show the psychological damage of treating innocent people like criminals.
“After a while a kid just might be like, ‘You know what, it’s easier just to put on this identity that everyone wants to give me. I hope that a lot of people don’t miss what happened with Meechie. I’m trying to give you a backstory on all the Black dudes you see on the news who are headed to jail. Once upon a time, they were just little boys minding their business and perhaps you’re catching them on the tail end of what you’ve done to them,” Wolfe said.
As FeFe grapples with her brother’s transformation, she leans on her mother and Mama Pearl, the matriarch and storyteller whose impromptu history lessons tell the transformation of the neighborhood, from the demolition ball tearing down Black homes and businesses to make way for the Dan Ryan expressway to the construction of the projects themselves.
Redlining and restrictive housing covenants would keep many of the residents in the Robert Taylor Homes for years, generations of families confined to a complex falling into disrepair. Once the CHA began demolishing the buildings, some were fortunate to receive Section 8 vouchers that would allow them to settle elsewhere. The less fortunate occupants deemed “non-lease compliant” for breaking residency rules were left to fend for themselves, often squatting in empty buildings marked for the wrecking ball.
Capturing the anxiety and panic families were experiencing at that time was also crucial for Wolfe.
“I think it’s always going to be traumatizing for people to have to leave their home, even if it’s a rich corporation trying to buy your house to build a mall. That would send shock through an entire community and those people may own those homes. So you’re talking about people who have been mistreated since day one, and now it’s ‘We want you to leave this insular safe space and move somewhere else into society,” said Wolfe.
While the characters face some serious challenges, Wolfe wanted to capture the joy and love between them as well, from the girls’ trip to visit Downtown to the moments of affection between FeFe and her mother. Later in the book, when time and surprising tragedy splinter the quartet, the now-grown FeFe is faced with her biggest challenge yet, one Wolfe sees readers grappling with themselves.
“I had an opportunity as a writer to show people what it looks like to forgive someone who’s done something terrible to you. I wanted FeFe to wrestle with this, but I also decided to let Precious have the space to say ‘No, I’m not ready yet.’ That felt true to life for me, because you’re going to have those who are ready to forgive and people who aren’t interested at all. So you have this variation in these adult characters and how they handle what happened,” Wolfe said.
As the critically-acclaimed author prepares to receive the Pattis Award Saturday at the Newberry during the library’s Chicago Storytelling in Bughouse Square 2023: Chicago Forward event, she is heartened by the outpouring of love “Last Summer on State Street” has received, from oldheads to the rising high school freshmen she spoke with days earlier.
“These were kids from all over the South Side asking me questions MFA students would ask. It was one of the most powerful conversations I’ve had about the book so far,” she said.
Wolfe is currently writing her second book and working on a television adaptation for “Last Summer on State Street.”
The award presentation at the Newberry at 4 p.m. Saturday is a free public event. Wolfe will receive the award and discuss “Last Summer on State Street” with Gail Kern Paster, Interim President and Librarian at the Newberry Library. Copies of the novel will be available for purchase.
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