by Gwendolyn Brooks
Where It All Goes Down
We hate to sound like a broken record, but in case you didn't catch this already: the poem takes place in a kitchenette building. A kitchenette building is sort of like an apartment building. It's a bunch of one-room apartments where several families share kitchens and bathrooms. It's a crowded, stinky, and rundown place. (Check out this actual bulletin to the Chicago Housing Authority—feel free to zoom in on the text. And here's more information and photos of the "Black Belt" in Chicago.)
The kitchenettes began to pop up in Chicago in the 1920s and 30s with discriminatory housing practices by predatory landlords aimed at African-Americans. Rents were high and the conditions of the buildings were poor. You didn't live in a kitchenette because you wanted to; you lived there because you were black and poor, and you had no other choice.
As the setting is laid out in the title of this poem, then, a lot is already accomplished before we even read the first word (check out "What's Up with the Title?" for more on that). Brooks uses the setting to assert a whole slew of challenges that can stop the average person from dreaming. When the entirety of your day is spent trying to make the most out of your run-down surroundings, who's got the time or the energy to dream bigger? The setting is the speaker's enemy here, the big dream-killer. And that, folks, is pretty sad.