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Last Summer on State Street

Review

Last Summer on State Street

Anyone who lived in or even drove through Chicago during the last few decades of the 20th century would find it nearly impossible to ignore the vast number of towering high-rises that made up the Robert Taylor Homes public housing development. They stretched for miles along the interstate highways that themselves contributed to the de facto segregation of Chicago’s neighborhoods. The buildings might have been difficult to ignore, but for too many passersby (and I include myself among them, since I frequently visited the city as a child and young adult during this time), it was all too easy to ignore or remain oblivious to the thousands of people who called the high-rises home.

In her debut novel, LAST SUMMER ON STATE STREET, Toya Wolfe --- who herself grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes --- aims to change that. She has written an intimate story of friendship and family set during the summer of 1999, while the Chicago Housing Authority undertook the project of dismantling the Robert Taylor Homes and displacing its residents.

"LAST SUMMER ON STATE STREET is clearly written by an author who has a deep knowledge of, and affection for, the communities that once called these high-rises home."

The narrator of the novel is 12-year-old Felicia “Fe Fe” Stevens. She lives in the Robert Taylor Homes with her older brother, Meechie, and their single mother. Fe Fe’s days are spent playing Double Dutch with her good friends, Precious Brown and Stacia Buchanan. Fe Fe’s mom encourages the friendship with Precious, whose family is active in their church and is similarly cautious about rules and safety. She also grudgingly accepts the more recent friendship with Stacia, although Stacia’s family is known to be deeply involved with one of the gangs whose drug dealing and violence increasingly has taken place out in the open. At the start of the book, Fe Fe --- against her other friend’s advice --- welcomes a new member into their circle. Tonya is skittish and shy; her mom has a drug problem, and Tonya herself seems deeply reluctant to discuss her home life.

The four girls strive to have an ordinary summer, complete with summer school, a memorable 4th of July night watching the fireworks, and plenty of Double Dutch. But all this plays out against the backdrop of the slow and disruptive demolition of the project’s high-rises. Some residents who are in good standing get assistance to find new subsidized housing elsewhere in the city. Others, especially if they have a criminal record or incarcerated family members, are just moved from high-rise to high-rise, and likely will face homelessness once the final high-rise is demolished. When Meechie succumbs to gang pressure, the family’s future, as well as Meechie’s personal safety, is in jeopardy. But Fe Fe is still less vulnerable than some of her friends, for whom that last summer on State Street contains danger and even tragedy.

LAST SUMMER ON STATE STREET is clearly written by an author who has a deep knowledge of, and affection for, the communities that once called these high-rises home. Wolfe pulls no punches when it comes to describing the violence and drug use that plagued the complex. She certainly finds fault with a bureaucracy that built this community but then utterly failed to provide the kind of support that could have alleviated these issues.

But Wolfe also offers glimpses of Fe Fe’s future (the novel is narrated by an adult Fe Fe looking back on that pivotal summer) in interesting ways. She urges readers to reflect on the positives --- that is, the remarkable people who called these buildings home and survived the trauma they unfortunately encountered there. As Fe Fe movingly reminds her brother, they are the real “Chicago landmarks.”

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 24, 2022

Last Summer on State Street
by Toya Wolfe

  • Publication Date: June 14, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 0063209748
  • ISBN-13: 9780063209749