Robert Taylor: The Homes/The Man

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By the end of summer, three more high rises in the Robert Taylor Homes will be just a thing of the past. 3919 S. Federal Street was number one to make demolition history. Next is the infamous “Hole,” 5326 and 5322 S. State streets and 5323 S. Federal.

Based at the Robert Taylor Boys and Girls Club, 5120 S. Federal, the Local Advisory Council (LAC) is responsible for assisting residents with various activities.

CHA and U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials worked with the LAC to create a strategic plan for the redevelopment of the Robert Taylor Homes. The plan is posted above the Xerox machine for public information. Also, there’s a CHA Executive Summary released by Wendell Campbell Associates Inc. that goes into further detail about the redevelopment project.

CHA and HUD’s plan is to demolish all the buildings in Robert Taylor within a 5-year period. The overall plan is to redevelop all the high-rise projects for the new millennium: Cabrini Green, Robert Taylor and Stateway Gardens. The dates are not etched in stone, however. The goal is to have mixed-income communities in all these areas.

The History

About 50 years before the high-rise projects were thought of or constructed, there was a man who fought tooth and nail against massive, racially segregated high-rise projects. His name was Robert Rochon Taylor.

Taylor was appointed vice chairman of the CHA Board of Commissioners in 1938. Taylor built housing during and after World War II for wartime workers and veterans. He also helped manage a large housing project established by Julius Rosenwald (a famous architect) for African Americans and was secretary/treasurer of a savings and loan association.

Robert Taylor building being demolished. Photo by John "Popcorn" Sampson

Taylor believed that if African Americans saved and invested enough money, they could solve their own housing problems.

As the executive, he helped finance homes outside all Black segregated areas. He wanted to keep public housing small and integrated.

In 1946, the county was confronted with the idea of racial integration in public housing. CHA provided Black veterans and their families units in the temporary housing projects in white areas of the city whose alderman swore publicly to never let any Blacks in. Taylor met the opposition of Mayor Martin Kennelly and the aldermen who would accept only a small number of African Americans.

“I put up a big fuss about the idea to any quota at all. I talked a lot about freedom and so forth. But I was not too worried. I knew what had happened in those projects that were supposed to be 50-50; the whites had never moved in and so they had become all-Negro projects. I figured that more than 30 percent Black wouldn’t work but between 10 and 30 would work all right. More than 30 percent would tip it over.” – Robert R. Taylor

Taylor Resigns

The Housing Act of 1949 provided great funding for public housing construction but site selection was limited by controversy.

In 1953, the spread of displaced African Americans alarmed the politicians. The Planning Commission passed a resolution urging that the redevelopment of slum areas be discontinued. The council accepted City Hall’s compromise and Taylor resigned from the board.

CHA constructed the high rise projects in spite of Taylor’s knowledge, dedication, loyalty and hard work.

Robert Taylor died in 1957, three years before construction of the development that was named in his honor.

Robert Taylor Homes Today

The Robert Taylor Homes are currently the single largest development of public housing in the world. There are 12,645 residents who are predominantly Black. The average household size of families living there is 3.8, the largest of any CHA development. Nearly 60 percent of the residents are children 14 years of age and younger.

According to age and gender statistics from CHA’s 1995 Statistical Profile, about 50 percent of these female children are ages 0-14. Almost 80 percent of residents ages 15 and over are single Black females.

A demolition truck hauls away debris from a Robert Taylor building. Photo by John "Popcorn" Sampson.

Isn’t it Ironic?

Isn’t it ironic? Taylor predicted that buildings with more than 30 percent African Americans would become all Black and destitute. The majority of the residents do not qualify for jobs in the community. Most of the businesses in the neighborhood are owned and operated by people from other neighborhoods.

Residents have limited resources and assets. An estimated 93 percent of all children in Robert Taylor live in deep poverty. Nearly three quarters of all households rely on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), now called Transitional Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), as a source of income.

Overall, 98 percent of Taylor households receive some form of public assistance.

Save Public Housing

On June 10, the Coalition to Save Public Housing rallied downtown in front of HUD headquarters on Jackson Boulevard and Dearborn Street.

I went expecting to see thousands of people flooding the streets and stopping traffic. To my surprise, only a few hundred participated. More disappointing, I didn’t see enough residents of public housing or those on Section 8.

Do we as residents feel that it’s a “done deal” or that our voices are not heard and that our votes don’t count? Believe me, if one of you thinks like this, there are a thousand more with this same negative thinking.

What happened to that “ain’t no stopping us now” spirit Mayor Harold Washington instilled in us? Some of you may feel comfortable with Section 8 certificates but what are you going to do if the certificate expires and you can’t afford to pay rent? There is power in numbers and we all must unite. United we stand, divided we fall.

The rally was not just about public housing. It was about affordable housing and a desire for a long-term plan for the future.

We owe it to Dr. Martin Luther King and all the Civil Rights workers who died for our constitutional rights. But we mostly owe it to ourselves. Personally, I think we owe it to Robert R. Taylor who fought against building high rise projects in the beginning. Let’s not let his hard work go in vain or forget him and what he stood for.

Other Opinions

I asked a couple of people what they thought about the demolition project and what Robert Taylor stood for.

The following comments came from a resident who wants to remain anonymous. She raised her children and grandchildren in Robert Taylor Homes and is respected by everyone who knows her. As a matter of fact, all children in her building call her “Gra-Ma”:

“It’s good because the crime has deterred. There are no more gang wars and the heavy drug traffic stopped.

“As the relocation is concerned, the people were satisfied with their placement. Some were placed out of state and over east.

“The people whose rent was not up to par were transferred to 4848 S. State because CHA couldn’t put them out and the landlords wouldn’t take them.”

This resident agreed with Mr. Taylor that they shouldn’t build the buildings in the first place and put all these people on top of each other. I asked her if she thought that the new apartment complexes that will be built on the site of Robert Taylor Homes should be renamed the new Robert Taylor Homes.

“No,” she replied.

“You and I both know that once all these buildings on the State Street corridor are torn down, all the rich white people will move in. If you don’t have a decent job and cannot afford to pay the rent, you can forget it.”

Joseph Saunders, a community organizer of the Youth Task Force, said: “As much as I know about the annihilation of the Robert Taylor Homes, all in all, I believe it will do more destruction than construction. The cancellation of welfare recipients, the Bronzeville redevelopment, the beautification of King Drive and State – this was a beautification not for the good of the community but only for the convention in August.

“There’s enough money to invest in flowerpots on the sidewalks rather than homeless in vacant lots. Now this with the Taylor Homes,” Saunders said.

“It seems from a long-term point of view that as others move in, a people are being pushed out. In one word or less, it’s all bogus. Yes, the crime will cease and drugs will decrease but only in that area. It will only be moved elsewhere.

Saunders concluded, “From the physical eye, everything seems righteously done but from the spiritual, everything is crookedly compounded.”

(Sources: Bowly, the Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago, 1895-1976, 1978: Chicago Housing Authority 1995 Statistical Profile, July 1996; Chicago Department of Health, The Robert Taylor Initiative Working Paper, August 1995; Banfield- Myerson, Politics, Planning & Public Interest.)

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