A story late in the Chicago author Jasmon Drain’s debut, “Stateway’s Garden,” begins: “Our mothers take credit, but in Stateway we raised ourselves.” It’s a telling sentence, a kind of key to the whole enterprise. We are introduced from the first page to a cast of tenants living in the low-income housing project in the mid-1980s, individuals who recur across the collection, finding different ways to connect, disconnect and let one another down. But, much like the tenement in Gloria Naylor’s “The Women of Brewster Place,” it’s these characters’ living space that is the book’s real protagonist. That is, the high-rises themselves take on traits and modes of agency that shift and evolve from story to story — each time a familiar name is brought back to the stage, he or she feels recontextualized, born anew.
Together, Drain’s linked tales concern a young, intellectually gifted boy named Tracy, his handsome older brother, Jacob, and their efforts to come of age while mostly raising themselves. Not quite absent but also not quite there, their mother is on the periphery both emotionally and physically, spending her nights in clubs, attempting to find a man to ease her loneliness, to find a measure of security.
In “Stateway Condo Gentrification,” we learn that Stateway Gardens is “the biggest concrete building on Chicago’s South Side,” as large and imposing as a city itself. The city’s famous wind whistles as it blows past the buildings, and rats slip through the cracks. “Our buildings were painted this grayish-white color that looked like dirty sheets bleached repeatedly,” Tracy tells us. “The only things that gave them color were the frequent sprays of neon graffiti or someone using one of the walls as a toilet.” In the other stories, there’s no shortage of life within and around the apartments: Tracy’s mother washing his hair in between bouts of depression (“Reaganomics, Left Lying in the Road”), the brothers’ near-fatal adventures on a train platform (“Wet Paper Grass”), Jacob’s neighbor-girlfriend’s pregnancy, which he inelegantly asks her to terminate (“Shifts”). But in “Stateway Condo Gentrification” Drain zooms out, giving us a 360-degree rendering of the housing project. It allows the reader to stop and look around, to take stock of all that came before. The particular choices the characters have made are their own, but they are also part and parcel of the urban neglect and decay that plague a place like Stateway.
As Jacob grows older, he leaves the family to become another statistic of the 1980s drug trade, returning to see Tracy only intermittently. Their mother also becomes an occasional visitor in her own home, having taken up with a rich, married lover who is not fond of Tracy. Through it all, Stateway functions as a kind of cage; from the tall perch of their building, its denizens can see the outside world of Chicago, but can’t fully participate in it. Tracy and Jacob “were not allowed to go to the beach. Weren’t really allowed to go past Martin Luther King Drive because the police harassed us terribly.”