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Thread: Chicago's Infamous Robert Taylor Homes

  1. #1

    Default Chicago's Infamous Robert Taylor Homes


    Midst the Handguns' Red Glare - Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing development


    Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes public-housing development is the largest subsidized residential complex in the world. Six of the poorest US census areas with populations above 2,500 are found there. Ninety-five percent of the housing development's 20,000 residents are unemployed and list public assistance as their only income source. And 40 percent of the households are single-parent, female-headed households earning less than $5,000 per year. Rates of violent crime and gang activity are among the highest in Chicago. The Black Kings and the Sharks (affiliates of major Chicago gang families) and the Black Disciples, Vicelords, Black P. Stone Nation, and Mickey Cobras all roost in the housing development. Its landlord, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), has estimated that $45,000 in drug deals take place daffy. Take a casual drive by the housing project: twenty-four drab, sixteen-story concrete high-rises, many blackened with the scars of arson fire, sit in a narrow two-block by two-mile stretch of slum. The city's neglect shows in littered streets, poorly enforced building codes, and scant commercial or civic amenities.

    Despite overwhelmingly depressed conditions, Robert Taylor's 4,300 households lead lives that are as patently "American" as those in Dayton, Ohio or Manhattan's Little Italy or Upper East Side. Some residents, with successful, educated children now living in the American mainstream, have lived in the housing development for thirty-seven years. In many ways, even when gunfire fills the skies and daffy life must reorganize in the face of decreased safety, Robert Taylor Homes is as much a community as most American "communities"--or more. Careful, thoughtful, ethical conversations go on; concerns for fairness fill the corridors, fire escapes, and elevators; and the American ideal of building a habitable community is always present. But in the midst of periodic gang warfare, residents shape their own sense of "village"--truly a tale of personal courage and collective sharing and supportiveness.


    Within three years of its completion in 1962, Robert Taylor had to battle public perception as a den of abnormality. A prominent journalist called it a "woman's world of fatherless households" and a "death trap [where] the dangerous life is routine." The news story conveniently passed over the 50 percent of households that were two-parent, employed, and receiving absolutely no government assistance. What readers did not learn from this and other exposes were the efforts--extraordinary, imaginative, and mundane--that households made to adapt to, alter, and combat the harmful effects of gang activity. Media portraits preferred the biased litany: gangs, drugs, crime.

    The texture of gang activity has actually changed considerably since the 1960s, when gangs first entered the housing development. At that time, gangs were primarily small bands of streetcorner groups, with little active involvement in drug trafficking or gun violence. They were a social nuisance, but under the control of tenants. Mabel Harris, at the 218 State Street building, a longtime tenant activist who moved to the housing development in 1963, has been dealing with gangs for most of her life. "Back then," she says, "they were just kids who didn't find nothing for them in schools. There were no jobs, so they would just hang out. They wasn't shooting nobody, that came later, but they'd fight each other all the time." Local crime was mostly property theft, domestic abuse, and interpersonal violence not involving gangs.

    Only a few police officers from Chicago's Second District were specifically assigned to the housing development, and the housing guards placed by the CHA in some buildings had been instructed not to leave the lobby. Even today, it's impossible for "official" police to respond to each incident, so enterprising residents such as Mabel Harris developed novel cooperative schemes to combat crimes, watch over strangers, and raise the level of security for households. These were the precursors to the highly-touted "community policing" efforts that now saturate contemporary poor neighborhoods.

    At the outset, the unofficial boys-in-blue teams were fairly informal. "Mama's Mafias," networks of heads-of-households, watched over children so that parents could run errands or go to work. In time, as crime grew more serious, these informal networks changed into formalized organizations of redress and enforcement.

    In the 1970s, for example, federal welfare legislation ruled that women could only receive welfare if they did not live with partners and spouses. So men lived as hidden boarders, constantly in fear of the law. Many of these men spent their time in the public spaces outside of apartments in order not to jeopardize the welfare payments of their partners. Tenant leaders put the men to use. They organized "quasi-militias" to locate suspected criminals and domestic abusers. "It was real simple," explains Tony Telander. "We'd be hanging out and then Mabel or someone else would come running down telling us that so-and-so was hurt or had their apartment robbed. Well, since we was hanging out, we knew all the gossip, knew who did what and where. The women would scare us, tell us that if we didn't go out and find the guy who did it, then they'd tell the CHA that we was living with our wives. We was scared 'cause they was on aid and we ain't had no jobs. So, we became like a police force, you know, running around finding people that done things wrong and beating them up!"

    In addition to militias and Mama's Mafias--two of the most celebrated examples of self-enforcement in Robert Taylor--tenants developed intricate relationships with the police. Many are visible today. When I was staying with Cathy Blanchard's family in 1990, a burglar robbed their apartment. Instead of calling the police immediately, they called the tenant leader in their building, who called a friend on the police force, who in turn sent two local police officers to investigate the robbery. The police worked with tenant leaders and local street-corner men to locate the suspect, determine his guilt, and then return some of the stolen goods. With the exception of police involvement, the tracking down, apprehension, and "trial" of the suspect occurred completely outside the judicial system.

    It's not necessarily equal justice for all. The neighbors at the other end of the hallway never received such assistance when they were robbed--in part, because they were in poor standing with the tenant leader. But by creating workable relations with tenant "brokers," police can no longer argue that the housing development is too dangerous to patrol. They can "serve and protect" the community (at least, they can assist those the tenant leaders feel need attention). This tenant-broker-police "teamwork" has been in existence for nearly three decades. Tenants prefer it to no police response at all.


    The creative "community-policing" and coping strategies of the seventies proved to be good preparation for the new breed of gangs that emerged a decade later. Unlike those of the sixties, the eighties gangs were violent and entrepreneurial. They loitered in public. They sold crack/cocaine, as well as heroin and pot, from lobbies and in abandoned apartments. They routinely harassed tenants who cooperated in police investigations.

    By the nineties, they added a twist to their otherwise not-very-attractive behavior: they became community philanthropists, giving money to needy households, sponsoring large dances with free food and drink, and hosting "back-to-school" parties for local children, where they gave away clothing and sneakers. J.T., a high-ranking gang leader, explained his motives: "We ain't angels or nothing, that's tree, but we can do something for folks 'round here who got no one else for them. We give them food, we watch over them, protect the community, we try to give something back, try to better the community."

    For families living near or below the poverty line, these outward gestures to "better the community" aren't easy to turn down. Tenant leaders, who themselves possess few resources with which to help other households, can hardly rebuff the gangs' generosity. Much like their creative engagement of police who were not very responsive to community needs, the tenant body has--for better and worse--created complex working relationships with gang members.


    "Gang wars" erupt three or four times a year, beginning in spring. Prolonged gunfire--usually drive-by shootings--commonly occurs near schools and play areas. Not surprisingly, residents will not allow their children to walk the short distance to school. Lacking day care, many adults cannot leave the house for work or even short trips to the grocery store. The pace of the community comes to a debilitating halt.

    Since 1990, a perverse symbiotic relationship has evolved between gangs and residents. Gang wars trigger an odd convergence of self-interests and a strange form of cooperation. Residents want to quell gang-related fighting in order to restore community safety, and gang leaders want the same result so they can reduce police presence and return to narcotics trafficking. Even as the sounds of handguns or an occasional rifle or grenade resonate through the housing development, tenant leaders and community activists begin the long process of restoring stability and rebuilding their communities.

    In an eerie, regimented pattern, tenants begin by providing immediate assistance to one another during the three to seven days of shooting. Then, the "second act": an extended period of conflict mediation and resolution. It first involves investigative questioning by local police officers, then public forums for tenants to express to law-enforcement officers their displeasure over the public-safety lapses, and finally "backdoor" negotiations between gang leaders and select community spokespersons such as Mabel Harris and John Williamson, the director of a local social-service agency who has influence with gang members. The third act is a period of catharsis and renewal, when tenants meet with friends and return to their normal routines.

    Each of the three acts of the "script" is crucial to rebuilding social relationships in the housing development. However, the secretive negotiations between gang leaders and community leaders are popularly regarded as the most important means available for tenants to end gang-related conflicts and restore public safety. Few persons actually expect an end to gang violence, but the private dialogues have been quite successful in creating a detente between the gangs.


    In the early 1990s, tenants developed another method to address the conflicts between the gangs. Mabel Harris and John Williamson formed a jury of peers, a "community court" that included themselves and two older, ex-gang leaders. Several times each month, tenants relayed to this adjudicative body incidents by gang members who had harassed residents or committed domestic abuse or other acts considered criminal. Instead of immediately resorting to physical or armed conflict, the gang leaders from warring families narrated and attempted to resolve their own disputes in front of this body.

    Tenant leader Edith Huddle and the other jurors then deliberated over the reported infractions and meted out punishments accordingly. Typically, they assigned monetary redress or commanded apologies from gang members. In separate closed-door meetings, the gang leaders inflicted physical punishment and imposed their own monetary fines on their members.

    Tenants passionately debated this new "community court." Some expressed outright disgust that gang members could switch roles and become their own police, lawyers, and enforcers of punishment. Dissenters argued that the housing development was in a state of emergency and should use any resource available. Since gangs were already deeply entrenched in local affairs via their philanthropy, many believed that any realistic attempt at mediation had to include them.

    Navigating through the opinions has been immensely difficult for tenant leaders. They vested the gangs with authority and legitimacy at a time when residents were angry, frustrated, and becoming intolerant of the gangs' growing influence. Some tenants openly criticized their leaders' decisions to appoint ex-gang leaders to the "community court" and to accept the gangs' offers to fund clothing drives for local schoolchildren. Edith Huddle, who has worked tirelessly for nearly forty years on behalf of her community, is not averse to criticism, but she had failing patience for tenants' hesitant posture toward the novel community courts. "They keep making me explain everything!" she cried in response to tenant complaints of her leadership. "They just have to trust what I do. I'm on their side and they think I'm the enemy or something. Isn't that what leaders are supposed to do? We're supposed to find ways to fix their problems." The answer to her question not only depends on whom you ask, but the same tenant will be of mixed opinion, favoring the outcome of the "community court" but harboring disdain for the legitimacy afforded the gangs. In a world of limited governmental services, where police are a rare sight and the city no longer seems to care for tenants' needs, it is difficult to feel otherwise.


    Robert Taylor Homes nears its fortieth anniversary. It soon may be no more. Congress recently passed stiff legislation requiring that all local housing authorities conduct "viability" studies of their large complexes and determine whether it would be fiscally prudent to destroy them or rehabilitate and modernize the structures. In a controversial evaluation, the Chicago Housing Authority has forcefully claimed that destruction is the better alternative. To date, four of the buildings have been destroyed and most of the remaining twenty-four are expected to fall within a decade. Public-policy experts, journalists, and academics all have expressed their support for the demolition. Those who oppose destroying the housing development argue that replacement housing should be guaranteed before the high-rises meet wrecking balls. Since Congress has also discarded the "one-for-one" replacement rule, we should not expect that the failure to relocate families in decent, affordable shelter will hinder the demolition of Robert Taylor.

    Robert Taylor Homes isn't meeting its fate because of any inherent flaw in public-housing design. As recently as the late 1980s, the CHA's engineers said the housing development would last "as long as the Empire State Building," if maintained properly. If we want to understand how once-vibrant communities like Robert Taylor fall into the dustbin of liberal state policies, we need to look instead at the changes in our nation's economy and the retrenchment of our federal government in the last two decades. After 1980, the CHA's budget was slashed by 87 percent. Drastic urban job loss turned a mixed-income community into an entrenched underclass population with little hope of social reintegration. Where once gangs and drugs were under the restraint of tenants, they have flourished in a context of hardship and national neglect.

    I rarely meet people who support the continuation of Chicago's high-rise developments. If the polls are any indication, most Americans have a rabid desire to end any national commitment to housing our poor and needy. Our contemporary inner cities are considered deviations from the national culture, not examples of it. It is not far from the truth to say that we tend to see inner-city communities as precisely un-American, i.e., filled with people unwilling to work and unwilling to live like those in the mainstream. Many truly believe it would be better for all, including the housing-project residents, to have their homes demolished. Little thought or sympathy is felt for the displacement of the urban poor onto the homeless rolls or to even more-marginal housing. As we watch the buildings fall, let us remember the community not only for its bleak "deviant" problems, but for its all-American aspirations to organize a habitable community, and for the accomplishments of all its members, even gang members, in supporting its commonwealth.

    Sudhir spent seven years hanging out in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project. It was a big switch from his interest in the urban poor as studied by statistical surveys. He's been interested in the "enemy within"--when the gang members are also children, nephews, nieces, and friends. He's just been made Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia. His book, American Project: Gang and Community in Chicago's Public Housing, will be published in autumn 2000.

  2. #2
    Crabby airline hostess - stache's Avatar
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    Jun 2004
    Nairobi Hilton


    I took a wrong turn off the Dan Ryan once in the mid seventies and drove the length of this project. It wasn't as bad as I had expected it to be. I'm suprised they're still standing.

  3. #3


    Quote Originally Posted by stache
    I took a wrong turn off the Dan Ryan once in the mid seventies and drove the length of this project. It wasn't as bad as I had expected it to be. I'm suprised they're still standing.
    Chicago is doing what NYC has to do with each and every last housing project, admit the mistake, take a huge cut and tear them down.

    From the Chicago Housing Authority:


    Robert Taylor was considered the largest public housing development in the world when it was completed in 1962. With more than 4,300 units, this massive development occupied a two-mile long stretch of south State Street. The apartments were arrayed in a linear series of 28 16-story high-rises, which formed a kind of kind of concrete curtain for traffic passing by on the nearby Dan Ryan Expressway. Most of these high-rises have been demolished, and the remaining buildings will be closed by 2005. By containing a large low-income population on an isolated site, the Robert Taylor property became a national symbol for the errant philosophy of post-war public housing.

    Existing Conditions

    To prepare for the redevelopment of the Taylor property, demolition of the site is ongoing. All but five of the original 28 buildings had been razed by the beginning of 2003. About 1,800 residents currently live in Robert Taylor.

  4. #4


    Plan for Transformation: Mixed-Income Redevelopment

    The master redevelopment plan for Robert Taylor includes construction of 2,388 mixed-income rental and homeownership units, community facilities, and new retail space. Approximately 851 of the planned 2,388 units will be public housing replacement units, as reflected on the chart below. Redevelopment for this site will occur in three implementation phases.

    Construction will begin first on the northern portion of the property, where 894 units of mixed-income housing will be added. These units include 290 public housing apartments. The breakdown on these units is reflected in the chart to the right. To set the stage for groundbreaking, the city is currently making improvements to the street grid and the surrounding sewer system.

    Plans for the southern part of the site are still in formation. Meanwhile, the CHA is adding 251 new units of housing in the surrounding neighborhood. The Brinshore/Micheals Development Company is the development team for Robert

  5. #5
    Forum Veteran
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    Jan 2003
    Garden City, LI


    Man, how I wish NYC would trash it's PJs. What a debacle. Funny, though, seems that Chicago is WELL below replacing them unit-for-unit.

    Has anyone ever heard anything even remotely concrete about NYC doing this? One person told me his brother was bidding on demo for CI projects, but that doesn't seem to be true.

  6. #6


    does this means that the 5 robert taylor homes stading will be demolished too?

  7. #7
    Crabby airline hostess - stache's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2004
    Nairobi Hilton


    Yes I believe so.

  8. #8

    Default Misconception

    Quote Originally Posted by stache
    I took a wrong turn off the Dan Ryan once in the mid seventies and drove the length of this project. It wasn't as bad as I had expected it to be. I'm suprised they're still standing.
    I lived for two years a block away from the Robert Taylor Homes during the early 90's, and have come to realize that the problem doesn't lie in the tenants of the projects, but the neglection of the city. If you take any poor neighborhood and don't maintain itand don't give adequate police protection, the same thing will happen as we have unfortunately witnessed with the Robert Taylor Homes. The city of Chicago has turned its back on these people and as a result the people turned their back on Chicago.

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  10. #10
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    Halifax, Canada

    Default It's not quite that simple

    Quote Originally Posted by Chicagoman4ever
    The city of Chicago has turned its back on these people and as a result the people turned their back on Chicago.
    I agree with you... but as with everything in life... it's not quite that simple. For one thing, Regan cut HUD's budget to almost nothing. And of course the place itself was socially and physically isolated from the city. Changes to welfare laws in the 70's resulted in what started out (in the 60's) as a mixed-income community changing to a community where almost everyone was on social assistance. The buildings themselves offered no 'defensible' private space for residents. And of course the incredible profits made possible by the innovation of dirt cheap cocaine (crack) gave rise... in this environment of isolation and poverty... to the so-called "corporate" gangs. Rest assured, money is what makes the world go round... and as long as the economic incentives are there... people will take advantage of them. I'm not disagreeing with you at all. The city DID turn it's back. But there's just a WHOLE lot more to it than that... a whole complex, interwoven mixture of problems. And as is always the case... the tenents (the VAST majority of them) were not the problem... contrary to the common perception of all the CNN watching, McDonald's eating, ignorant suburbanites... most of the residents wanted the same things that everyone the world over wants... a stable, supportive, healthy place to live their lives and raise their children.

    So how many people have gone homeless in Chicago due to America's savage and short-sighted social policies?

  11. #11


    I guess a little update if you care:

    One building is currently being demolished leaving only one remaining building still intact out of the original 28.

  12. #12

    Default No one will miss it ... a horrific abomination

    "At one time, [Robert Taylor Homes] was the largest housing project in the country ..."



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