Who Could Miss The Hole?

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To most people, the Hole was the worst part of America’s toughest neighborhood – the Robert Taylor Homes public housing development. Around the world, Robert Taylor’s 16-story high rises were infamous for their gangs, drugs, broken elevators, single mothers and general desperation. For a generation, those 28 high rises lined a 99-acre stretch of the South Side. “The Hole” was the nickname given to three of the buildings which stood in a u shape at the south end of the development, at the intersection of 53rd and Federal streets.

“They called it ‘The Hole’ because once you got in, you couldn’t get out,” quipped Residents’ Journal’s Assistant Editor Beauty Turner, who lived in Robert Taylor for 16 years.

The last Robert Taylor building was demolished in October 2006, and most people said “good riddance” when it fell. But on a warm Saturday this August, hundreds of former Robert Taylor residents set up tents and booths and gathered in an empty field where the Hole once stood. Giant speakers belted out dusties, hip hop, R &B and jazz music. Food and drink were plentiful and mostly free. At a few tents, people sold t-shirts emblazoned with photographs of the high rises and the addresses of the now-demolished buildings. Many people wore home-made T-shirts commemorating friends who had died too young. In one spot, old friends posed for photographs in front of a colorful mural of the buildings. The overall atmosphere was relaxed and congenial, even as men who once shot at each other in the development’s notorious turf wars now exchanged stories of old times.

There were many organizers of this Robert Taylor reunion, which was at least the sixth. The event wasn’t advertised on any radio station or in a newspaper. Word was passed around from person to person through a vast, informal network. Some of the people there moved out of Robert Taylor when their buildings closed. Others had been gone for decades.

Thousands of former residents of Stateway Gardens attended the developmentā€™s 13th annual reunion and picnic, according to Francine Washington, LAC president, pictured on the right. Photo by Ethan Michaeli

Ray Ward left the development in 1985 and now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. He remembered playing in the spray of open fire hydrants in the summer and throwing snow balls at his friends in the winter. Looking over at the vacant lots and empty store fronts along State Street, he listed the stores, restaurants and bars he knew.

“When I left, the buildings were still standing,” Ward said. “When I drove by now, I almost cried. There was so much memory here.

“It’s a whole life you can’t get back.”

As with any neighborhood, everyone saw their time at Robert Taylor through their own prism. Those who had lived through the tough times did not sugar coat the horrible conditions. Instead, they attributed the violence to the poverty in the community, rather than any longstanding animosity between people.

Tish Duckett, who lived in Robert Taylor for 15 years, said, “The conflicts of the past were all about money. Now it’s all about family. It’s about peace and love.”

Like many of the people at the reunion, Duckett added that Robert Taylor provided good quality housing for many poor families. In fact, Duckett said the public housing developments were better than the housing which is available for low-income families in the private market. Explaining that she has moved at least once every year since her high rise closed, Duckett expressed a wish that was common to almost everyone I interviewed.

“They should have kept the buildings up and re-did them,” she said. “There are a lot of slum lords out there.

“Former resident Philip Crockett agreed. Many academics and political leaders subscribe to theories that the problems of Robert Taylor and other public housing developments were due to the architecture of the high-rises, which concentrated too many poor people together. Crockett had a different theory.

“They built the housing and then they just left,” he explained.It was a decent place to stay at a reasonable price,” added Joey Stroy. None of the people at the reunions were there to make a political statement. But the former residents’ presence there contradicted many of the nation’s top politicians and academics. There was a community in public housing. For many people who lived there, the disdain and rejection of those in power just created hardships that had to be overcome, proving the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s adage that “What doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger.”

Greg Jackson, who now owns a pizza parlor just blocks away from where the development stood, said that many former Robert Taylor residents have become leaders in their new communities.

“We come from the gutter. We have no choice but to be strong,” Jackson said. “We make the best come out of the bad. That’s what makes a leader.”

Former residents of "The Hole" pose in front of a mural depicting their old buildings. Many former residents believed efforts to remake public housing through demolition were misguided. Photo by Ethan Michaeli

That sense of struggle belies the pronouncements of the Chicago Housing Authority and others that the demolition was an essential part of a whole program to ‘re-integrate’ residents into the mainstream. None of the people I interviewed said that they got any useful assistance from government officials or social service agencies.

The propaganda campaign against the developments is so ubiquitous that many people reading this may still doubt what I am writing. So it’s worth noting that I found the same perspective 20 blocks north on the same day at an unrelated reunion for former residents of the Stateway Gardens developments.

Like Robert Taylor, Stateway Gardens was a high-rise development with more than its share of gangs and drugs. And also like Robert Taylor, Stateway was categorized by the powers that be as a poisonous environment that ruined anyone that lived there.

That wasn’t how the thousands of people gathered for the Stateway’s reunion felt. Francine Washington, the last Local Advisory Council president of Stateway and a We The People Media board member, said that this year’s reunion was the 13th such event. Last year, more than 4,000 people signed in, and early in the afternoon, Washington said she was on track to top that number.

“Some of these people are the first ones who lived in Stateway,” Washington explained.

Adding that people had come from Milwaukee and as far away as Tennessee and Atlanta, Washington said that they missed what they had in the high rises. In their new areas, the former residents have no block clubs or community events.

“Some live in nice neighborhoods but they’re just there,” she explained. “They’re used to the camaraderie they had in Stateway.” Washington’s words put form to the feeling I took away from my time at the Stateway and Robert Taylor reunions. For the former residents, their community endures. It is a foundation that no bulldozer or wrecking ball can destroy.

Not so for the rest of us. Like most Americans, I didn’t know most of my neighbors in the nice suburban area where I was reared. It was a collection of strangers rather than a community. By expending our tax dollars and our intellectual energy on destroying the community that existed in public housing, we all lost the opportunity to learn how to better help each other. We lost the chance to understand what a community really is.

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