Toya Wolfe: From Robert Taylor Homes to Literary Triumph, a Writer’s Journey

Photo by Leicester Mitchell

State Street on the South Side of Chicago, from 39th to 54th Streets, is all a burial ground. 

When you drive down that corridor today, you’ll see empty lots, a vast green space interspersed with buildings here and there — a few schools, a community service facility and some churches. Near its southernmost edge, past 49th Street, a low-rise shopping center emerges, housing a dialysis center. A few blocks later, near 54th Street, lies a massive tennis training facility with indoor and outdoor courts and $540-a-year adult memberships.  

But years before, this two-mile stretch was home to 28 buildings densely packed into a corridor known as Robert Taylor Homes, once the largest public housing development in the world, where, at its height, 27,000 residents, mostly Black people, occupied 4,349 units.

Yet, it would all be razed over nine years beginning in 1998, and with it, persistent narratives of its slum-like conditions, crime, gang violence, and purported misery — a flawed and racist experiment that only served to constrain Black people into the smallest geographic area of the city possible. But that’s hardly the full story of Robert Taylor, much less the soul of it.

View north from the roof of 5266 S. State St., Chicago, 1999. Robert Taylor Homes, 1999 (Photo, Camilo J. Vergara, Library of Congress).

Thankfully, Toya Wolfe, a product of Robert Taylor Homes and an award-winning, critically acclaimed writer, has produced a novel that is sort of an homage to this lost community called “Last Summer on State Street.” 

The recent release of the novel’s paperback edition, “Last Summer on State Street,” continues to earn notable distinctions for Wolfe. “Tragic, hopeful, brimming with love, Wolfe’s debut is a remarkable achievement,” said The New York Times Book Review.

 If I tricked you into thinking these people exist and that I know these individual worlds that they live in, then I’ve done my job as a writer. – Toya Wolfe

The novel has garnered multiple awards, including the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award. It was also nominated as a PEN Open Book Award finalist.

Most recently, Wolfe won “The Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award,” the prestigious honor from the Newberry Library bestowed upon works that “transform public understanding of Chicago, its history, or its people.”

Beyond the awards, “Last Summer on State Street” signals the emergence of Wolfe as an essential author in Chicago’s literary canon whose work is critical to the city’s history. Also, through the force of her talent and perseverance, she has become a successful creative entrepreneur, making writing and literature her business.

The Chicago Defender met with Wolfe at the posh Soho House in Fulton Market earlier this summer, about six or seven miles from the old Robert Taylor Homes site but also a universe away from her old stomping grounds with its rustic, handsomely appointed decor and serene atmosphere. 

In Part 1 of our interview, Wolfe talks about what it was like returning to the grounds of Robert Taylor, mainly the site where she lived. She also discusses her connection to the four main characters of “Last Summer on State Street”: Fe Fe, Precious, Stacia and Tonya, and the honor and responsibility of being a Black woman fiction writer. 

Chicago Defender: Obviously, the landscape around Robert Taylor has completely changed. It’s dismantled. Do you drive over there anymore? And if you do, what kind of feelings does that bring up in you? 

Toya Wolfe: There’s a chapter called “Burial Grounds” in the book. And before I wrote it, I drove back over there. And it just struck me that everything seems so much smaller, like the buildings. We know this to be true. But to go back and feel it. 

The buildings were cramped into two miles. Twenty-eight buildings cramped into two miles of space. So, to go to the block where you could stand on the DuSable [High School] steps and look across the street where the buildings would have been. It just struck me how much was compacted into that one block. 

And the structure of our shopping center was still there. But it just looked gutted out and just so sad. I just think my world has gotten bigger, obviously wider, more open, more natural. And to go back to the space where I grew up. It’s a tragedy all over again. 

Chicago Defender: Is it traumatizing?

Toya Wolfe:  I won’t say it’s traumatizing because I’m so sort of removed from what happened there, what I saw there. It has been a while. I’ve had time to heal. 

My experience growing up I don’t think it affects my present day. If anything, it’s a reminder that folks live. Folks have to live like this every day all over the world. This is not a Chicago problem. 

This is a “how we treat our,” I don’t want to use the term “poor people,” but a “how we treat people” problem. Going back to that block, I can’t believe that people had to live here and raise families here. This is what we were given. 

But I also remember people hanging out on the DuSable steps like it was like the stoop, just chilling, enjoying a summer afternoon. 

We somehow managed to still have joy and community at some of the most wrecked places.

Chicago Defender: Do you have people who come up to you? Saying things like, “How did you live through that?”

Toya Wolfe: It happens at readings all the time. I want to talk about craft, and I want to talk about these characters and their journey in the book. But there are people who show up, and they are just gutted that humans can live like this. And they look at me, and they’re essentially asking me like, “Are you okay?” 

I was getting interviewed earlier in the Summer by students at a university, and one of the students asked, “How are you dealing with the trauma of your childhood?”

First of all, this is not my personal story. And I’m good. Thank you for asking. (Laughter) But so much of it is projection because the book wrecked them. And they have a new understanding of how people are living right under their noses. 

That’s the beauty of writing. If you do it well and take the time to really go in, you invite people into a world they didn’t know existed, and you let them live in it for a bit.

“Last Summer on State Street” book cover

Chicago Defender: Writers, especially novelists, have to point out, “Look, this is a creation. This is not an autobiography, right?” So, with that said, Is there a character out of the four girls you identify with the most? Or is there a piece of you in each of them? Tell me a little bit about that without giving too much away.

Toya Wolfe: I definitely think there’s a bit of me in all four of the girls. I was going to say the most distant is Stacia. But I think Stacia is the kind of a girl that a lot of us wish we were like. 

We wish we could be bold enough to say what we’re thinking. We wish we could leave situations that bored us or didn’t serve us. I’m out of here (laughs). Like, I don’t need to be here. 

She has a grown woman’s authority. Now, she makes some terrible decisions. Let’s go ahead and say that I gave her full autonomy to say what she wants and do what she wants. And as adult women, some of us still struggle with that, but I gave this characteristic to this 12-year-old.

I think Precious spends time in church the way I do as an adult. I think Tonya is sort of innocent in her dedication to joy and play. This kid, you know, has this really tough life, but she somehow manages to find a way to play and jump rope with these girls as much as she can. 

And definitely, Fe Fe’s ability to get people together is definitely ripped straight out of my personality.

She knows that bringing Stacia into her friendship with Precious and bringing Tanya into that group is a terrible idea and that these personalities might not get along. But just for the greater good. And she’s just such a champion of relationships. 

What’s dope about fiction is that you can take these characteristics from different people, or even just like an idea, and create a character with it. 

Someone asked me if Mama Pearl was based on somebody I knew. And I always tell people, when that question comes up, that she’s half my grandmother and half the grandmother I wish my grandmother was. 

So, my grandma was very Christian and very sweet. When I was making this senior citizen character, I thought, like, “What if I gave her some edge?” Like, “What if she’s the kind of grandma who carried a pistol in her purse?” 

What if she was the kind of grandma who walked down the street and people moved out of the way?

Chicago Defender: Whoa.

Toya Wolfe: What if she’s the kind of grandma who snatches kids up and says, “I see you run around here. You need to get it together!” I gave [Mama Pearl] this boss personality, but then I merged it with my actual grandma’s mannerisms and dialect. 

That’s what’s so cool about fiction because I feel like I can do whatever I want. And at the end, before I let things go, I do vigorous research to make sure I wasn’t lying about factual things (Laughter).

But when I tell people I made these characters up and that the plot is all created, they’re shocked and a little bit disappointed. 

I used to get offended when people expected this to be my life story because it said that, as a writer, I don’t have the talent to create this world. 

But now it’s just a compliment. 

Chicago Defender: That’s right. 

Toya Wolfe: If I tricked you into thinking these people exist and that I know these individual worlds that they live in, then I’ve done my job as a writer. 

When people just say, “Oh, you wrote your story down,” If you don’t catch yourself, you can be offended thinking they’re taking away all the work you put into building these characters and their story world. 

It’s a trip being a fiction writer!

Chicago Defender: It’s hard. 

Toya Wolfe: Honestly, to be a Black person and a Black woman. I want you to go ahead and name seven fiction writers off the dome. This is not really where we play, and I feel the honor and the responsibility in having this kind of platform and having all these folks want to talk to me about it. This is not what we get to do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Part 2 of this interview will be published on Wednesday, August 30. 

In honor of August being Black Business Month, the Chicago Defender is running a series of profiles on our city’s dynamic Black entrepreneurs.

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