Five years after the last building in the Robert Taylor Homes was demolished, it’s a miracle to locate former residents not only from that development but from anywhere in the Chicago Housing Authority. After years of being displaced by gentrification, we were united on a social network site named Facebook. The best of my former neighbors at Robert Taylor are doing just fine. It may surprise many to see that we are functional people, since we were deemed dysfunctional and self-destructive. But we are alive and still standing! Still standing literally and figuratively.
In the summer of 1998, the first building in the Robert Taylor Homes located at 3901 S. Federal St. was torn down, followed by the cluster buildings on 53rd Street infamously known as the “Hole.” The name derived from the term, “If you come in, you can’t come out.”
Moving out of public housing became a challenge to the majority of former residents. Many families were disenfranchised by a welfare system that cut off their resources if they found employment that increased their income a penny over the poverty level. Residents learned how to survive by manipulating the system. Do just enough to not go homeless and live comfortable, but not enough to move out into the private sector and pay market rent. These residents outnumbered the working-class residents that paid market rent. This system bred generations of families who were taught the same cycle of survival. People rarely moved out. Perhaps the “Hole” should have been the nickname for the entire development.
I posted a question on Facebook asking for the input of former residents about how they and their families are doing? Have Section 8, subsidized housing and replacement housing worked for them? A few people participated. A small segment of former residents are homeowners and some left long before the demolition. Many families struggle to pay market rent but vowed not to ever return to public housing. They can’t take the scrutiny of the new application/screening process and feel their human rights and civil rights are being violated.
The Robert Taylor Homes was a public housing development completed in 1962. It was named after Robert Rochon Taylor, a Black activist and a CHA board member. Taylor became CHA chairman in 1942. He was the son of Robert Robinson Taylor who was the first Black American to graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1892 and the first Black professor of architecture at Tuskegee University. Robert Rochon Taylor is the grandfather of Valerie Jarrett, the senior advisor to President Barack Obama.
Taylor resigned in 1950 when the City Council refused to endorse potential building locations throughout Chicago. These locations would have introduced integrated housing to segregated neighborhoods. Unfortunately, government officials at that time couldn’t move beyond their racial prejudices. Instead, they chose to build the housing development in a segregated slum area. The Dan Ryan expressway was constructed to be the divider between black and white neighborhoods in the city; public housing high-rises were lined up along the expressway.
Robert Taylor Homes did not have a strong working class population, and its problems were magnified 10 fold because the majority of the residents were on public assistance or unemployed. Crime, violence, drugs and neglect from the property managers was a cocktail for self-destruction for both the brick buildings and its inhabitants. Robert Taylor Homes’ demise was inevitable.
At one time, Robert Taylor was the largest public housing development in the USA. CHA’s mission statement was to offer temporary, decent, affordable housing to mixed-income families. The buildings were composed of 28 high-rise buildings with 16 floors each. Each floor had a total of 10 apartments excluding the apartments that were utilized for social services and custodial storage, for a total of over 4,321 apartments. Groups of three to five buildings built in a “U” shape were called a cluster. The buildings stretched from 39th to 53rd streets, and from State to Federal streets. Even numbered buildings were located on State Street and the odd numbered buildings were located on Federal Street. I grew up on 51st and Federal Street, where the cluster included 5100 S. State, 5135 S. Federal, 5201 S. Federal, 5247 S. Federal and 5266 S. State. Can you visualize the “U?”
On March 5, 1962, the first family to move into Robert Taylor Homes was greeted by Mayor Richard J. Daley with a bright smile and open arms. Daley presented James Weston with flowers. A local daily newspaper recorded, “Handing the bouquet to Weston, a glass inspector and married father of two children, Daley declared: ‘This is a great thing for the city. It provides decent housing for fine families.’” After five years of living in an ideal apartment complex, James Weston and his family moved out of the Robert Taylor Homes, a rare example of utilizing public housing serving as temporary housing.
Mayor Daley’s original plan was to provide housing for 11,000 residents. That number swelled and peaked with over 27,000 people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau population’s demographics, six of the poorest areas with populations above 2,500 people were located on the State Street Corridor, which included Robert Taylor Homes and other developments. Ninety-five percent of Robert Taylor’s residents were unemployed, and their primary source of income was government assistance. Forty percent of the households were headed by single parents, with women being listed as the heads of most of the households; they generally earned less than $5,000 per year. Ninety six percent were Black American. According to the police reports on crime in the Robert Taylor Homes, they estimated that the gangs in the development distributed illegal drugs for a profit of over $45,000 a day.
The last building of the Robert Taylor Homes, 5135 S. Federal, was demolished in 2006. The residents were given a few options. They could apply for the CHA’s Housing Choice Voucher (formerly known as the Section 8) program, which allows low-income families to rent quality housing in the private market with funds provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They could also choose to move into mixed-income housing which was supposed to replace Robert Taylor Homes. Many residents felt their exodus out of Robert Taylor was given a “good riddance” by the mayor of that time, Richard M. Daley, son of Richard J. Daley. As one reporter said, “One Daley (Richard J.) giveth and the other Daley (Richard M.) taketh.”
REMEMBERING 5135 S. FEDERAL
When I think of the Robert Taylor community, of course I’m biased because I still to this day know that I grew up in one of the BEST buildings, 5135 S. Federal. In spite of all the obstacles, challenges, hardships and terror that I was exposed to as a child and an adult, I’m grateful for the lessons. 5135 was one of the cleanest of the 28 buildings. I would be remiss if I wrote about Robert Taylor Homes without mentioning Mildred Dennis, the Local Advisory Council (LAC) president of Robert Taylor “B,” who played a big part in my life and the lives of many others. She remains active as an advocate for the former residents, offering assistance and referrals to those who have vouchers and those who are renting subsidized housing units.
I’ve already stated the cons of living in Robert Taylor Homes but surprisingly, there were many pros to living there too. One of the many pros was that residents had access to social services and delegate agencies. Our immediate and extended family was our strongest support system. We utilized the barter system. You could borrow money or food from a neighbor when your funds were depleted. You could find someone to watch your children if you had to work or run an errand. Women and girls got some of the latest hair styles, while men and boys got a haircut for a reasonable price. Boosters (shop-lifters) re-sold stolen merchandise for half-price or in exchange for drugs. This kept their clients adorned with the latest name-brand fashions. Pre-schools and Chicago Public Schools were within walking distance. The Boys and Girls Club of Chicago was one of the greatest assets to the Robert Taylor community because it provided employment for residents, after-school and summer programs for youths. The Local Advisory Council became advocates for the tenants and made sure that residents had a fair opportunity for employment. Many of us were employed by the CHA. The development was our safe haven and Black Business Network, as we knew it.
During the demolition of Robert Taylor, many property owners took advantage of the opportunity to rent to a tenant who had a Section 8 Voucher, which guaranteed income on a monthly basis. Many landlords were fair and accommodated their tenants with good living apartments or homes. Other property owners turned out to be slum lords, leasing homes and apartment units that should have been condemned.
Some of those former residents who felt victimized by both the Section 8 program and the landlords turned their frustration into action. They got rid of the slumlords by opting out of the CHA’s system and found housing on their own. This means they have to pay market rent, even if they had to work two to three jobs to provide for their families. On the flip side, there were numerous tenants who lost their Section 8 Voucher for reasons that ranged from the ridiculous to the justifiable. We still have a large population of former residents that don’t have access to the resources that they were once privy to go to for assistance.
Many former tenants fell through the cracks of CHA’s bureaucracy. Some of these were the tenants who were “unauthorized,” meaning that they sub-leased an apartment or lived with a lease holder but weren’t legally on the lease. With the recession and unemployment on the rise, the majority of these tenants who were displaced or homeless have had a difficult time finding assistance. They are desperate for some type of relief in the form of a voucher or subsidized housing, relief that they may never obtain.
The redevelopment is moving forward – slowly. It is funded by a federal grant called HOPE VI which was supposed to revitalize the absolute worst public housing projects. A part of the replacement for Robert Taylor Homes is renamed “Legends South.” At the end of the process, there are supposed to be 2,300 low-rise residential apartments in a mixed-income community. The question is: how many former residents will return?
Tags: CHA, Chicago Housing Authority, chicago youth, community involvement, demolition, HUD, public housing, public housing residents, Robert Taylor Homes, Section 8, youth