The Good Ol’ Days

Since 1967, Barbara Moore has watched her dream of living in the Robert Taylor Homes deteriorate to crime, deep poverty, bad policy and stereotypes of life in the development. ( Photo by Audrey Cho)

Since 1967, Barbara Moore has watched her dream of living in the Robert Taylor Homes deteriorate to crime, deep poverty, bad policy and stereotypes of life in the development. ( Photo by Audrey Cho)

In 1967, Barbara Moore moved into a high-rise building at 5266 S. State St., in the Robert Taylor Homes, with her two young sons. The new two-bedroom apartment was a step up from their old, rickety kitchenette a few miles away.

Many black families like Moore’s were crowded into these one-room dwellings. At their worst, the kitchenettes were run-down units, fire-gutted buildings and crumbling facades. Many of the dwellings were torn down on the same swath of land where the Taylor Homes opened in 1962.

In the new apartment, her boys—ages 4 and 6—had their own room. The public housing high-rise teemed with children. Moore formed lasting relationships with neighbors. Janitors replaced old screen doors and filled work orders the same day they were received. “It was nice,” Moore recalled. “It was clean inside and outside. It was freshly painted, the floor freshly mopped. It was like a dream come true. The apartment was simply beautiful. I had a room for my two boys and a room for me. It was clean with a new stove and a new refrigerator.”

For Moore, the dream at Taylor began to deteriorate about 20 years after her arrival. During that time, families, jobs and even the buildings themselves started to wither.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, the virtually all-black tenant composition evolved from two-parent, working families to underemployed single mothers, from innocuous gangs milling around the premises to brutal gangs overseeing a violent drug market.

When building upkeep started to lag, Moore, a longtime tenant president, and her neighbors trooped down to the Chicago Housing Authority to complain. Sometimes it got the dilapidated elevators up and running again. In recent years, while Moore has not had any problems, she said maintenance requests for others at the development could languish for three months.

The CHA is razing the Taylor Homes and thousands of other public housing units across the city and replacing them with mixed-income communities as part of the agency’s 10-year, $1.6 billion “Plan for Transformation.”

Teardowns and mixed-income reconstruction is a theme seen across the country, but the CHA’s plan is the most ambitious. At its peak, Taylor was the largest public housing complex in the world. It had 28 buildings—about 4,300 units—stretching nearly two miles of State and Federal streets from 39th to 54th streets on the South Side. For that reason, in part, the Robert Taylor Homes became an example of all that went awry with public housing and left a national scar.

Because of its history, its residents and its fate, the Taylor Homes are a conundrum of symbolism. Once seen as a place of promise and opportunity, Taylor is now associated with poverty and crime, hopelessness and urban ills.

To policymakers and national public housing advocates, Taylor symbolizes failure—evidence that poverty-ridden high-rises don’t work. And Taylor’s mixed-income future is the hope for public housing’s next generation. However, for Taylor residents, the demolition symbolizes the death of their community and angst about displacement and frustration in finding new, decent and affordable housing.

“I’m fairly happy these places are coming down. They shouldn’t have been built the way they were built. It was a recipe for disaster. These projects were harming the people who live there and undermining the city,” said Bruce Katz, a vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute. “It was really a scary, frightening place where no child should be forced to grow up.”

Of Taylor’s 28 original buildings, only Moore’s building at 5135 S. Federal St. now stands alone in the symbolism; it will be demolished at year’s end. Slow elevators creek inside the tatty beige building. Graffiti litters the walls. Only 36 occupied units remain. With Taylor’s impending demolition, the physical landscape of Chicago will forever be changed. No longer will the hulking, faded structures drape the Dan Ryan Expressway, a physical and psychological wall.

But the view is different from within the Taylor buildings. In the eyes of many residents, living in the “projects” brought a modicum of stability with informal networks of residents that comprised babysitters or neighbors from whom to borrow ingredients for dinner. “It’s going to be a sad day for Chicago when the Robert Taylor Homes come down,” Moore said, forlornly.

To Moore, the depiction of gangs and drugs has been overblown at Taylor; many households had high school and college graduates. And she said it’s a farce that the high-rises were meant to be temporary because she bounced from fast-food to factory jobs that paid low wages and kept her stationary.

But it’s the stereotypes of life in public housing that most rile her. “Women have been degraded. It seems as if people on the outside believe all of us are whores, bitches, dropouts, have babies. Like we smell, don’t take baths,” she said.

At night, the 65-year-old peers out the window from her bedroom, where she is bedridden. The view of the city and the gleaming lights are better to gaze at than the stars. She’s lived in three different Taylor buildings. Her daughter and two grandsons live upstairs. “It never should’ve been allowed for them to tear it down,” Moore said.

Optimism rang when the Robert Taylor Homes welcomed its first families in 1962. These high-rises represented a new day for low-income, black working families scrambling to chase the American Dream. The aim was for them to rent temporarily, save money and then move out, said Chicago historian Timuel D. Black, professor emeritus of social sciences at the City Colleges of Chicago.

But pure altruism didn’t drive the construction of Taylor; it was also a consequence of former Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political machine. The need for affordable housing in the city nagged, but many white aldermen rejected the idea of low-income residents—black people, in effect—steered into their ward. Taylor was a deliberate construction to further racial and economic segregation that prevented black people from entering white areas via subsidized housing. No African Americans were supposed to go west of Wentworth Avenue, Black said.

Residents can mark the changes of Taylor over the decades. For some, the changes are as clear as a cloudless day.

It was 1970.

“I was a young mother at the time,” said Katie Sistrunk, 53. “I had two children and nowhere to go, and so I went to the projects.” The choices were Taylor and the Cabrini-Green development on the Near North Side. She decided to stay on the South Side and moved into the Taylor building at 4101 S. Federal St. with her two children.

Sistrunk felt empowered, able to contribute something to her independence and community. Three years later, she married a construction worker. In total, she had 13 children. Sistrunk lived in various Taylor buildings until 1998. During those three decades, she volunteered with the tenants’ council, school parent patrol, Camp Fire Boys and Girls and the nearby Boys and Girls Club.

The early years passed untroubled. There wasn’t much gang activity. People left their doors open. Repairs got fixed in an hour.

In 1972, “hell’s valley,” as she often refers, descended. Drugs, robberies, beatings, rapes and killings steadily increased. Sistrunk said CHA workers threatened tenants, and some police officers brought drugs into Taylor or offered no protection. Mothers traded food stamps for drugs. Sistrunk once witnessed a random bus stop killing and, another time, a boy beaten outside as the sun shone brightly.

Two-parent households like hers became the anomaly. In 1963, 2,734 families had two parents, and 1,441 had one parent. In 1982, there were 322 two-parent families, and 3,523 one-parent families, according to CHA annual reports.

“The second generation of public housing families were more likely to be in deep poverty, receiving public assistance and predominately unemployed, single-parent homes. That’s when the problems and the need for helping families to move to self-sufficiency began,” said Terry Peterson, the CHA’s chief executive officer.

Sistrunk and her husband fought to keep their children occupied—sporting events, church, chores, out-of-state summer camp and youth groups—and out of the throes of gangs. She told her brood that they were their own gang and to look out for each other. Seven of her children either graduated high school or got their GED; three went to college; one has a master’s degree.

But one son joined a gang. Years later, he told her that he did it to take the heat off of his younger brothers. Now, he’s in jail.

Gang members tried to draft one of Sistrunk’s daughters at age 11. But Sistrunk sent the girl to a high school out of the neighborhood as she did for two of her sons.

Still, violence slithered into her world. Three of her children were shot on separate occasions, each while ducking from crossfire bullets. Gang members killed her nephew in 1992. She approached the killer and told him, “I saw you fire your gun, and I let the police know,” she said. “My whole family was targeted for that.”

Sistrunk was denied a transfer to another building, so she approached the head gang leader, telling him: “If you bother my child, I’m gonna get your mother. Your mother lives on 13; I live on 6.”

She paused. “I’m not afraid of no man. I’ve been to Beirut and Afghanistan and never left this country.

“I [did] the best I could to save some of my sons. I couldn’t save them all. It wasn’t an easy job to raise nine boys and four girls,” Sistrunk said.

Even facing the most calamitous conditions and despite the distressing anecdotes and statistics on crime, poverty and drugs rattled off about life at Taylor, many former residents possess a fondness for the place they once called home.

Some days Vernell Perry visits 5326 S. State St. and cries in the grass. At one time, it was her childhood home, one of the three white buildings facing each other, notoriously referred to as “the hole.” Today, it is an empty lot. “I miss our building so much. Everybody was family inside. Everybody’s door was open,” said Perry, 32, who was born and raised in Taylor. “I wish I could go back to State Street.”

At Taylor, family was literal and figurative; a coterie included friends, brothers, sisters, cousins and parents. “I had a ball. All my friends—we grew up together,” Perry said.

As a young girl in the 1980s, she and her friends engaged in tomfoolery like throwing pennies at old ladies and riding their bikes on apartment porches. Her best friend lived two floors away. Residents threw summertime barbeque parties on the playground with deejays spinning rap and “dusties.” A Boys and Girls Club on Federal Street held teen parties, attracting youth from other Taylor buildings.

The State Street corridor was Perry’s whole world; going downtown or to Evergreen Plaza on 95th Street required hitching a ride from someone. The family didn’t have a car.

Her older brothers were part of the Mickey Cobras gang, known simply as the MCs, a protective affiliation she wore like a wintertime down coat. “You couldn’t be nothing else but an MC,” she said of the gang social order in “the hole.”

Yes, there were shootings and crack sales, Perry said. But the older boys often escorted the elderly in with their groceries. And they weren’t the only ones breaking the law. She added that throngs of rich people would come to the buildings to score heroin.

She wasn’t immune from the violence. One night when she was 16, Perry and her best friend hung out at a friend’s apartment in the 5322 S. State St. building. They wore new outfits, ready to go to a party. A group sat around when one guy started fooling around with a .22 caliber. The gun made a “pop” sound, firing a bullet that hit Perry’s best friend in the eyebrow. Blood gushed everywhere. They ran outside and flagged down a car to go to the hospital.

The boy who pulled the trigger went to jail—but, first, he got a beat down from the other friends. The bullet is still lodged in the face of Perry’s friend.

The mother of two girls, Perry moved out of Taylor in 1997 and moved in with her parents, who had bought a home. But now Perry’s living situation is in limbo because the house is undergoing repairs. She lives with her sister-in-law in Woodlawn. She keeps in touch with many former Taylor tenants; in the summer they meet up at Washington Park for reunion parties.

She and her friends await the Taylor redevelopment completion and hope they can return. Perry often wistfully says how much she misses the development. She calls Taylor “our land.”

Katz, of the Brookings Institute, acknowledges the networks that families like the Moores and the Sistrunks formed in these circumstances, but added that concentrated poverty reinforces pernicious trends. “Government policy has to really promote economic integration, whether in these inner cities or housing mobility. This is the right policy, but implemented with care,” he said.

In 1992, as staff director of the U.S. Senate subcommittee on housing and urban affairs, Katz was chiefly involved in writing policy to change public housing in myriad U.S. cities. Under the program known as “Hope VI,” the federal government provided billions of dollars to public housing agencies to create the new communities the CHA is attempting. Rehabilitation of developments like Taylor had been deemed too costly and HUD approved the proposal to demolish the buildings as part of a broader redevelopment scheme, Katz said.

High-rises are not conducive to public housing. The density doesn’t work when the dominant resident is a welfare recipient, he said. “When you’re warehousing the very poor in poorly constructed [housing], you really don’t have, in the given development, the sort of role models for children and families.”

Flooded with applicants due to a housing shortage in the city, by the late 1960s, the CHA rented apartments on the basis of need, according to sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who’s studied Taylor. This brought a young, out-of-work population that was often on welfare.

“After 1966, tenants were not simply seeking amenities from the Housing Authority as renters. Instead, most were unemployed, ghetto poor, single parents and welfare clients for whom state supports were imperative for daily sustenance,” Venkatesh wrote in “American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto.”

Katz is confident that the transformation will give low-income residents a chance to live in safer neighborhoods and alter the negative image of public housing. “Ultimately, I think Chicago will be a much better city,” he said.

Alexander Polikoff, the former executive director of policy center Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, said Taylor’s legacy is how it collapsed to bad policy, which promoted racial segregation and substandard living conditions. “I hope that we’ll be saying finally, after decades and decades, we did the right thing in tearing these things down,” he said. “I’m optimistic that mixed-income housing will work. A generation from now, that’s what they’ll be saying.”

In policy circles, the idea of plunking poor people in high-rises is considered to be a dinosaur. By the late 1960s, housing policy did away with the construction of high-rise dwellings for families. But it was too late for Taylor; it would take another two decades before talk of razing the buildings would be debated.

Reflecting on the four decades of the Taylor Homes, a common lament is spoken: it failed. But there are contrarian views. “Robert Taylor didn’t fail; this country made Robert Taylor fail,” said former resident Tyrone Galtney, 40. “It’s a disrespect to that man’s name.”

“Robert Taylor [Homes] was assassinated,” chimed in Shahshak Ben Levi, 50, a resident from 1962 to 1972 and again from 1990 to 2005.

Levi and Galtney usually travel together. The public housing advocates share many ideas on the politics around Taylor and exchanged them over dinner one night at the Negro League Café on 43rd Street, not far from the Taylor buildings where both men used to live.

To Levi, Taylor suffered as a byproduct from the Civil Rights Movement; middle-class African Americans left the area, black-owned businesses disappeared and subsequent deep poverty spread.

“Do you know how many people wanted to live there?” Galtney said, pulling out a picture of his family in 1968—mom, dad, brother and sister, all with wide smiles. “Robert Taylor was like: ‘Wow!'”

Galtney’s family moved up and on, but he returned in 1990 as a college student when the CHA needed more male leaseholders.

Both men blame improper maintenance for Taylor’s decline, pointing to the lack of modernization funds poured into the buildings during the 1990s. CHA officials say the federal government did not provide funds until the 1980s, when the buildings were already in disrepair and needs far exceeded available dollars.

Some also question whether there is anything inherently wrong with high-rises. Buildings taller than the Robert Taylor Homes proliferate Chicago’s landscape, especially in affluent lakefront areas, notes Janet Smith, associate professor in the Urban Planning and Policy Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

There are practical differences, however. Smith noted that the high-rises in more affluent areas typically have a higher quality of construction, amenities, services and security.

She’s also not convinced that mixed-income communities are the answer. Smith said households with higher incomes benefit from mixed-income communities because they are the recipients of sweet deals on new housing construction in transitional neighborhoods. In addition, the transformed CHA, as a whole, will reduce the portfolio of public housing units by 13,000, she said.

It will be until at least the end of this decade before the former Taylor neighborhood is a new one. Of the 2,550 units planned, 851 are earmarked for public housing. Those units will be interspersed among—and similar in design to—the remaining units, which are slated for lower-middle- and upper-middle-class residents.

“We need more public housing. I don’t buy into the social engineering that is driving mixed income—the new urbanist architecture—town houses or row houses. I’m less concerned about architecture than decent affordable housing,” she said. “How many people are really getting out of poverty? Housing is not going to get them out of poverty. A high-paying job will.”

Families from more than 1,500 Taylor units have been relocated. CHA officials say they wanted families to be “compassionately relocated,” so the pace has been slow, avoiding the harsh winter months.

Former and current residents are nervous. These high-rises are often the only place they’ve ever called home.

There are no gunshots on the quiet Rogers Park block on the Far North Side where Sistrunk now lives. She rents a scattered-site apartment with her granddaughters and foster children. Sistrunk divorced her husband more than a decade ago, and he later died. She hopes to return to the South Side, where her roots and family are.

Through it all, she’s not sure whether tearing down Taylor was the right thing to do. In the end, she felt like she lost her house when her building was demolished. She also lost contact with her family and was separated from her children who were born and raised on the South Side. “It tore my family up,” she said.

Sistrunk believes the glitch was those who ran Taylor. Enough wasn’t done to maintain and to save Taylor, she said. “You could’ve kept the buildings up. Be a solution to the problem.”

Beauty Turner helped research this article.

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