The Robert Taylor Homes: A Government-Sponsored Ghetto
In the final months of the Hole at the south end, anarchy was everywhere. The Hole, the most oppressive section of Chicago’s notorious Robert Taylor Homes housing project, was coming down.
Gang members shot at a moving van outside one of the Hole’s three high-rise buildings. Moving crews tried to hurry out each day before drug dealers commandeered the elevators.
-Pam Belluck, NY Times
The Robert Taylor Homes, named for Chicago’s first black housing authority chairman, was among the last housing projects built in the city. Begun in 1959, it completed a four-mile corridor of public housing along State Street. While its new high-rises were welcome replacements for a shantytown, they quickly became the nation’s largest government-sponsored ghetto.
The new complex was composed of 28 high-rise buildings with 16 stories each, with a total of 4,415 units, mostly arranged in U-shaped clusters of three, stretching for two miles.
Housing projects in Chicago are starkly identified with race and poverty. From the beginning, city officials used them, along with the expressways being built at the same time, to contain the city’s growing population of poor blacks. Of Chicago’s 67,000 public housing families, 97 percent are black.
In 1969, six years after completion of the last buildings, the three that became known as the Hole, Congress changed public housing policy with disastrous results for projects nationally. Instead of a fixed rent, tenants would pay a percentage of their income.
At Robert Taylor, working families moved out as their rent rose while neighbors on welfare paid almost nothing. Housing officials, wary of discrimination suits, stopped screening tenants. Single mothers as young as 16 were given apartments.
There were several famous people who grew up in this housing project, most notably Massachusetts Governor, Deval Patrick, movie star “Mr. T”, and athletes Maurice Cheeks and Kirby Puckett. Other infamous high rise projects in Chicago were the Henry Horner Homes, Rockwell Gardens and Cabrini-Green, which had the most publicity and was the setting for movies like “Candyman”, and also implicitly shown in the opening credits of the long-running successful TV show, “Good Times”.
As time went by, the homes became very unsafe. Not just because of crime, drugs and gang violence. No, the other problem was the physical safety of children. They often lived in squalor, as the homes were built for 11,000 people but that number would eventually rise to over 27,000. Sometimes, a dozen or more family members would share a small apartment. Over the years, several children were abducted and many also fell to their deaths out of open windows which had no screen or safety partition.
In 2007, the last remaining building was demolished and replaced with many low-rise residential homes and apartments, including amenities that were missing before like shopping areas and much needed community centers.