For four decades, a row of towers on the South Side competed with Chicago’s famous skyline. The Robert Taylor Homes, encompassing twenty-eight structures, each sixteen stories high, stretched for two miles along South State Street. It was the largest housing project in the city and, at one point, in the country. By 2005, all the Robert Taylor Homes had been vacated, and in 2007, the last building was demolished—the residents dispersed across the city, the south suburbs, and beyond.
South Side Weekly sat down with a former Robert Taylor Homes resident, Christine Gayles, who experienced this uprooting as a young girl, along with her family. Now an adult, a Chicago Public Schools teacher, and a new mom, she continues to reflect on what was lost and gained from that pivotal event.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When I first met you in school in 2006, you would talk about the Robert Taylor Homes all the time. Why was it important to talk about where you were from?
Because, for me, it’s my home and it’s who I am. It’s how I’ve come to be. The things and lessons that I’ve learned and witnessed and saw in the Robert Taylor Homes have had a lasting impact on my life, so it’s like my legacy. To feel that if I could exist in a place like that and—I don’t want to say “make it out”— but go beyond that place, and still have this love and appreciation for it, that’s what it means to me. I lived there from the age of four to the age of fifteen. So I remember the day that I moved into Robert Taylor, and I also remember the last day at Robert Taylor. My mother, who is recently deceased, was the last person out of our building. She just loved the Projects. She loved everything about it, she loved the people, she loved what it represented. Because it was truly a story of survival, so she took that to heart. She didn’t want to part from that building because it was more than a building. Like I said, it was home.
It was Halloween, I was fifteen years old—that was the last day the demolition crew had come to start stripping the building. My building was the last one of our cluster of three buildings [to come down]. So it was a really special moment in our lives, but my family lived there before me. My grandparents lived in an apartment [until 1983], and my mom had lived there before I was born. Before that, they lived in the Stateway Gardens, and before that, they lived in the Ida B. Wells Homes. Anybody who knows anything about Chicago knows that all of those are CHA buildings. So CHA meant a lot for us because it gave us homes. Then later on, my grandparents were able to save enough money to be able to afford a home in Englewood, and that’s how I have the story of being able to grow up between the two places.
We called it “the Jets” [or] we called it “the Buildings.” We wouldn’t necessarily say Robert Taylor Homes, we would just say, “Oh, we goin’ down to the Projects.” If my family came from Minnesota to visit us, that’s where they wanted to go. It was a party, it was love. Even at my mom’s funeral, we had hundreds of people who were from the Robert Taylor Homes who had come to pay their respects. I don’t really share this with a lot of people, but my mom struggled with addiction because she had depression, and she went through a lot of things in her life that led her down that path. But despite all of that, she found a way to shine her light on other people—her nickname was Sunshine. She was like a mother to the gangbangers, you know. We had so many different people who came through our house, living there with us… my mom was like a guardian angel to these people.
Everybody was a family, even if there was no blood linking us. It was just like we had this kindred experience, even when it came down to the teachers that served us. I had teachers who grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, and they came back and they taught us. I’m still in contact with them today…. I had these teachers showing me that “we came from this space, we are successful, we came back, and you guys can be successful, too.” So they instilled in us this love of Black history, they instilled in us this love, or idea, of respect and self respect.
Do you know if [old classmates] still come together?
Oh, yeah… whole communities come together every year, every summer before we go back to school, before Labor Day. Throughout the months of July and August people have reunions, and these reunions started about twenty years ago because 3919 S. Federal was the first buildings to come down in like 1998. It’s traumatizing. I never lived in 3919, but a lot of my family would live there–so I had nieces and nephews that I would go visit, family and friends.
I was about ten years old; you [could] see the wrecking ball just wrecking the building down, and you see all the different paint on the wall, and you see people’s lives just crumbling down to the ground. We watched that several times because, like I said, my building was one of the last, maybe the second to last building to come down.
A lot of the families ended up moving to another building. I have friends who originally lived in 4022 S. Federal, but their building gets knocked down so they move over to 4037 S. Federal, the building that I live in. And then we had people whose building got knocked down on 43rd Street, they [also] ended up in our building. So in the midst of that, we can still see all the different buildings being torn down, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes dragging it out, and I remember crying.
The last day that my [building came down] I just touched the brick, I took pictures on a disposable camera, but I never got them developed and I’ve lost it since then. But like, that was like all I had left, you know, just that memory, that feeling of touching it. My whole life, everything that I knew up until that point had been in those buildings.
On gangs and gun violence in the Robert Taylor Homes:
I can vividly remember my mom running to my school basically with her underwear on because she just dropped everything she was doing. She heard gunshots and she knew that I had just been in the playground about to go inside of the school building. I can remember big-time gang leaders, drug dealers, whatever you want to call them, tell us “it’s not safe out here for you guys. Go upstairs—women and children go in the house.” And that’s not some little cliche statement that I’m making. That actually happened. I can remember playing in the back of my building, and there had been wars between different ends or different factions of gangs. I remember them saying… “It’s war time, so y’all don’t come out,” stuff like that. That also was a part of the Robert Taylor Homes, this sense of organization.
I think the disconnect happened when people started going to jail for drugs—families were dismembered. A lot of kids went into systems or they had to go live with grandparents or other family members. I think the crack epidemic in the eighties had a lot to do with it, I think the mass incarceration in the nineties had a lot to do with it, I think police brutality had a lot to do with it. Police often brutalized the people who lived in my building—I witnessed police brutality firsthand. I can remember hearing the gun go off and knowing that my friend’s brother was killed in the hallway by the police.
The most popular gang on my end of Robert Taylor Homes was the Gangster Disciples. I can remember growing up, seeing them put on back-to-school functions for our kids at the end of the summer. They would have these big concerts where people would dress up as Barney and give school supplies and provide food for all of the kids who lived in the community, and no child was left behind. And I just also really remembered them stressing the importance of education.
A lot of times we hear about gang members and we don’t see this positive side—and not to glorify the actions that people take—but I do think that it does [show] that they were interested in their community; they did love the people who lived there. And they show that by giving us back-to-school functions… They provided a sense of structure. I lived on the eighth floor, and I could look outside my window on any given summer day, in the afternoon, and I would see the leaders leading the group of guys in [group] exercises and having them read. I can remember my sister being a tutor to some of the gang members because maybe they didn’t know how to read or they were struggling in math.
Tell me about the programs.
To me, the Projects was just this magical place, and I’ll tell you one of the reasons why. I get teased for this [by] all my cousins [who] lived in houses or they lived in Minnesota. They didn’t really understand this idea of living in the Projects the way that we did, even though my family had lived there for generations. Because [the reputation is that] the Projects has roaches and it’s not clean. “Why do you want to live there with all those people stacked on top of you?” But it was this safe place because even in the summertime, let’s say you didn’t have food, you know you’re going to get two meals that day from this breakfast and lunch program. We call it “Chokes,” where you wake up early in the morning and you can go get breakfast, and then in the afternoon, you can get lunch, and these are free meals.
In my building, there was an after school program where they transformed these two apartments and [made them into a] center, and we would go on field trips, we would have these enrichment programs, all these cool experiences that you wouldn’t think this type of stuff was happening in our building. That was through CHA, but they would get people who lived in the buildings to be the facilitators and to oversee the different people coming in. So they would have one apartment, and that apartment would house all the kids who are eating, and you would wait in line and have your time to eat. And we had some of the best times there; we would have food fights in there and get kicked out but still be welcome back the next day. When my family would come to visit us, I would wake all of them up, like “it’s time for Chokes, let’s go!” Especially if it was the “hot week” where all the food was going to be hot. So you’re going to be getting pizza or pigs in a blanket and stuff like that. And I can look back at it with all this nostalgia, but there were times I didn’t have food, you know, my mom didn’t have food or was not able to make me a meal. I could go there and be welcomed with open arms.
How did you understand what was happening as buildings were coming down? How were you processing it?
We would always say that this is prime real estate—it’s right next to the expressway and it’s within earshot of downtown. In about 1996, we would start driving in the South Loop, my grandma was—she’s a character. We would go to all these different places in the city, and a lot of times downtown. We would be driving, and she’s always giving me a history lesson or something. So she would just be like, “you know, this didn’t used to look like this. This changed, that changed.” We were driving down State Street, and you know that Chicago is so segregated when you [notice when] somebody is not in the right neighborhood, like they probably took a wrong turn or something like that.
I guess I’m saying all that to say that we just started seeing these new buildings coming up around 19th and State. And at one point, this was [an area with] a lot of old warehouse buildings. These are not nice-looking buildings or this desirable place that people wanted to live in. But we start seeing these lofts appear or these condos and townhomes appear. And so we’re like, “Oh, shit,” like, “something’s about to change, you know, they’re gonna come, they’re gonna keep coming further south, you know, down.” My uncle used to say when he was a kid, “White people are coming for this.”
My family came here during the Great Migration, my grandmother at the age of eleven, and they moved to the West Side, and so they had seen all these different changes happening, and somehow they ended up on the South Side. We knew that change was coming… It wasn’t as apparent as it is now. Like right now, I feel like my neighborhood [Bronzeville] has changed so much in the last two years where, like, there are about twenty new white people in this neighborhood—and they’re not afraid anymore. And not to say that they should be, but there was a time when they wouldn’t come here.
They told a lot of the families that “we’re going to build all these new nice apartments in the space where these buildings were in,” near the area. But everybody wasn’t as fortunate to get a voucher, and depending on who was on your lease, like if people had criminal histories, then they were sort of scrambling trying to find someplace to go. And I don’t know what happened to people who didn’t get a voucher, I guess they just sort of, like, trickled out into the city and kind of made it work however they could. But everybody was not placed somewhere else….
From 35th Street down to 43rd Street, I see a lot of former residents from Robert Taylor and Stateway who [currently] live there… A lot of people moved out [of the city], a lot of people moved to Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa. I feel like that contributes a lot to [the Black] population declining in the city. I know violence is the [main] cause, but a lot of people, when the Projects came down… I just know a lot of people were just kind of like, “I’m going elsewhere. I’m going to try to start anew.”
Correction, March 5, 2022: A typo in the print version of this story inaccurately says when the grandparents lived in Robert Taylor. It has been corrected online. We apologize and regret our mistake.
Jacqueline Serrato is the editor-in-chief at the Weekly.