From their completion in 1962 until their demolition began in 1998, Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes were the United States' largest public housing development and one of its most notorious. Taylor's 28 high-rises, each 16 stories tall, ran for two miles along State Street south of the Loop and housed thousands more residents than they were designed to accommodate, almost all of them Black.

Many factors led to Taylor's demise, among them entrenched systemic racism, misguided federal housing decisions and continual local mismanagement, and by their last decade, gangs, drugs and extreme poverty were rampant. Yet hundreds of proud, hardworking families persevered and overcame the deplorable conditions they were made to live in.

Toya Wolfe was born and raised in Robert Taylor, and her poignant and unflinching debut novel, "Last Summer on State Street," looks at the struggles confronting Taylor residents in 1999, as the demolitions accelerated and violence raged on.

Twelve-year-old Felicia "Fe Fe" Stevens grew up in Taylor, too, on the same floor as her friend Precious. In sixth grade, they started hanging out, jumping rope and playing hand games, with two girls whose families relocated to their building ahead of the wrecking ball. Everyone knew Stacia's family were Gangster Disciples and drug dealers, but so far she had resisted the allure of the gang. Tonya was a mystery, a "small, timid child" with a body "all curved and rounded out like a grown woman."

Summer school initially offers them relief from the dangers of the projects, somewhere they "felt safe to be kids." But no sanctuary is safe for long. Fe Fe's mom takes the girls to watch July 4th fireworks in Grant Park, but that innocent interlude shatters for good when gunfire greets their return to Taylor.

Wolfe's penchant for portentous "little did I know … "–type statements clues readers in that tragedy is coming, but it nevertheless hits hard when it arrives. We know Fe Fe makes it out, but the situations her brother and friends find themselves in should be unthinkable, especially in a country that esteems itself as much as the United States does.

Wolfe has a wonderful ear for dialogue, deploying pitch-perfect vernacular and slang. And she doesn't mince her words, either, as when Fe Fe reflects on the cops who brazenly drag her brother from their apartment in the middle of the night, observing that "he went to jail because he was Black and a boy, and to the police, that fit the description of a criminal."

Wolfe also leavens her narrative with the bureaucratic minutiae essential to understanding the precarious conditions facing families as Chicago transformed its public housing system.

The demolition of Robert Taylor wasn't completed until 2007, and 15 years later, the Chicago Housing Authority has still not delivered all the replacement units it promised to displaced residents. Fe Fe — and Wolfe — are the lucky ones, and their voices are essential reminders of the shameful conditions too many Black children and their families faced growing up. Only through their testimony can we hope that such travesties will never be repeated.

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer. He wrote about public housing for The Chicago Reporter in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Last Summer on State Street

By: Toya Wolfe.

Publisher: William Morrow, 224 pages, $27.99.