HOUSINGS by Ben Austen

A small moment from last week’s class on public housing that Lisa Lee and I are teaching has been replaying like a TikTok in my head. A guard called a student’s name, announcing that he had a visitor, and one of the two or three twenty-somethings in the class stood, smiled sheepishly, and mouthed that it was his birthday before rushing off. The student who’d been sitting to his right, at the outer reaches of the classroom, then gathered his books and moved to the vacated desk. He wanted to be closer to Lisa and me, to the chalkboard covered with notes about the segregation and underfunding of public housing, to his classmates—as if all of it was too precious to risk missing.

We’ve had three classes so far, and we’ve seen much already that’s infuriating and depressing. How could we not? The students who missed a week because a stabbing locked down their unit for several days. The trail of blood on the walkway outside the main building. The manacles on the shuffling elderly men that evoked slavery not only because they were chains but also because the shackles themselves looked to be a hundred years old. A student in class noting a passage in my book that described the dilapidated tenements and partitioned kitchenettes which people fled from in the first half of the last century to live in new, government-operated public housing. Every detail you used to show those run-down homes, every word, he said, could be used to describe Stateville today.

The actual class time has also been packed with many powerful and rewarding moments. The students have brought a depth of knowledge, and a hunger for more breadth, that has made the teaching feel truly reciprocal. Students have collected assignments and handouts to deliver to their absent classmates. They’ve asked not only probing questions but also curious ones you can’t answer yourself when you don’t have a search engine in your pocket—Who was Altgeld Gardens named after? Who was Robert Taylor? What’s a steel mill? We read about women leadership in public housing, and the guys fired off qualities that make a good leader, and broke down how those ideas are gendered.

In the first class, Lisa had an amazing assignment to share a place where you felt most at home. (It is a class, after all, about the importance of homes.) Almost all of the accounts were riveting, alive with vivid imagery and searing details, and when they weren’t other guys coached the storyteller, asking them questions to elicit a specific example. One of the guys began his response by identifying his grandmother’s house, immediately clarifying that he hated it there…because of all the pets. Dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, you name it. He said it smelled. There was nowhere to escape the bodies and the breath, the hair and the droppings. It fell on him, as a child, to clean up after them. Then one of the pit bulls had babies in the basement. He said his eyes fell on one of the puppies, and he just knew: “That’s my dog.” He then described how he raised the dog, reared it, grew up with it. The night he did the thing that landed him here, in Stateville, he said, he came home and his dog nuzzled him with uncharacteristic fervor, licked him, wouldn’t leave his side. He said the dog somehow knew that it was their last night together.     

Lisa (of course) had another great in-class assignment, and this one we had students write down and work on during the week before handing in. Darnell L. was excited to share what he wrote with the rest of you.

What It’s like to Be a Felon
Darnell L.

To be labeled a felon is to be a statistic,
a reminder of the lack of humanity that exists.
To be labeled a felon is to be an afterthought
and a by-product of failed government policy.
To be labeled a felon is to be a deadbeat dad
who has missed several milestones in the lives of his children.
To be labeled a felon is to be a loser trapped in a
meager existence without a hopeful way out.
To be labeled a felon is to be the cause of
society’s ills and never part of the solution.
To be labeled a felon is to take away your hope
and to give you a tarnished name and legacy.
To be labeled a felon is to be an object of pity
and the bane of society.
To be a felon is to die to self and to
be an object of capitalism.
To be a felon is to be branded useless
not worthy of compassion, empathy, or love.
To be a felon….
            IS NOT WHO I AM!

Ben Austen, the author of High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and a nonfiction instructor in the Creative Writing program at the University of Chicago. He is currently at work on a narrative nonfiction book about parole boards and the county’s practices around crime and punishment.