Photo courtesy of Christine Gayles

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. 

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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.

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Jacqueline Serrato is the editor-in-chief at the Weekly.

Join the Conversation

24 Comments

  1. I grew up in the Robert Taylor projects from January 1962 to December 1973. I experience good and bad experiences, however my parents were determined to keep a tight grip on their six children which consisted of five girls, one boy being the oldest. We ranged from age 2 to 12. We had a lot of history there, and l will always hold it as part of my beginning.

  2. My name is Ronald mcCary i lived at 3919 south federal with my sister Darlene and brothers Maurice, Steve #306 i kmow you guys remember Mr Howell and his children if some reads this my number is 678 778 4831 i would love to see Marsha Robinson and Charlotte Merritt and yes i miss it all learned a lot by being there

  3. Hi, great article. I grew up in Cicero, pretty close to the south side projects in the early 2000’s. I wish these were still up, I’d love to interact with the community there. Such an interesting dynamic between the city officials, residents, gangs, etc. I hope everyone from the projects, Robert Taylor, Cabrini, Ida B Wells, is doing well. Not everyone outside of the projects was happy to see them come down and acknowledges the unjust way the community was treated by CHA and the mayor.

  4. Hello everyone. my name is Mary, I lived in the 4946 building with my husband Steve and our 5 boys and 1 girl. we only lived there for a short time, from 7/4/62 t0 12/17/65. I was the youngest mother on the 8th. floor and we were a very close family. much of what I learned to be a mother came from the other mothers on that floor. My husband and I separated in 1964 and it was the floor mothers who gave me guidance, Mrs. WARD was at the was at the top of the list. My apt. caught fire Dec. 1965 and we had to move out. My grand mother gave me money to buy a home. I went back to school, worked for the Post Office, received my BA, worked for Dept of Public Aide, and was a Social Worker in the projects. I was respected by the gangs and never had a problem. Yes there was some good and some bad but I believe the good out weight the bad. it helped me to learn the ways of live ans separate the bad from the good.

    1. I feel like we might have met the summer of ’65. I was a seminary student with my buddy in our clerical collars, 2 white specks with the children on the crowded playground. We did 2 Bible studies at 2 apartments under Rev. Larry Morkert at Holy Trinity Lutheran on 47th St. Fond memories…

  5. My family moved from 4160 So Ellis to 5326 So State.We moved into Robert Taylor Homes in9/62 and moved out on 8/75.Went to Mary C Terrell and Dusble Upper Grade Cter and finally Dusable High School.The neighborhood was where the Black people were working to improve there station in life.This was a community of Blacks with deep southern rootsmy parents came from Mississippi.Church folks,number runners and the underground economy coexisted.The Black Stone Rangers were the domininat force in the”Hole”this is the name for the Taylor Homes at 5326 So State,5323 So Federal .Tenacity is the stern lesson learned from this life experice.

  6. Those Projects were to be temporary housing for those on public assistance….you were supposed to use your time living there to better your living conditions, by working to got off Welfare, get an Education to get a decent job and move out…not stay for 5 & 6 generations…living off public assistance most of those residents settled for the Gov’nt hand out and didn’t want out of that Ghetto…some mother’s and Grandmother’s raised gangsters and drug dealers.

    1. And then they wonder about gangs and kids not going to school G when you have people that have no responsibility no jobs to get up for the party all night and then of course they’re going to get in the gangs and sell drugs. That’s the only way they can make fast money they’re not forced to make money any other way. They’re not forced for their responsibilities to put a roof over their head it’s just party money. they have nothing better to do blame the government for everything that’s going on if you make them get up and have a job, make them actually have to pay for their lives and maybe the streets would calm down because they would actually have to do something to put a roof over their head instead of just handing stuff out do you think maybe that would fix some of the problems!? With little to no cost of rent, free food, free kids assistance don’t you think they should have to prove they’re saving money and somehow, or have to prove that they have a part-time job or something to even get this assistance. Y’all think this is handouts and a way to live. It’s a government slapping you in the face saying you’re too lazy and you’re not responsible enough to have a life so we have to give you one.

    2. I’m really shocked by the negative tone in your replies. We weren’t asking for handouts. If anything, the hardest-working people I know are from the projects! I’m the one who shared my perspective and I’m guessing you both missed the point where I said, my grandparents were able to save and move from the projects. I’m a multi-property owner with two graduate degrees. My aunts hold PHDs. My other family members are highly successful and ALL products of Robert Taylor Homes. Steven and Nikki where is your compassion? If you could imagine the trauma endured there, you wouldn’t defecate on the experiences of those who had no choice but to be there. I don’t get how you two thought someone was blaming the government. Robert Taylor was my home. Shocked you would think people need to meet some litmus test for basic human rights! And you want to mention gangs as if the United States Government isn’t the biggest gang of all. I bet you two are the perfect humans.

  7. My mom was a social worker in the late 60 ‘s to early 70’s she worked in the Robert Taylor buildings educating young women with kids and no husbands to cook take care of their kids I recall a few of those women can to my mom’s Funeral and praised her ( my mom had a very positive influence in their lives)

  8. Hi my name is Tracey Loggin I was born on the south side at Michael Reese hospital on dec 5 1987 , Carol Overton and Jerome Loggin are my parents , I was adopted at the age of two years old…. Carol died June 10 2022 of lung cancer and Jerome Died July 2002 of AIDS I am 35 years old , I grew up in the suburbs because I got adopted by this family names (Richards)

  9. My name is Ebony Spivey and I grew up in Stateway (3833S.Federal#407) and it will always be a part of me. It actually made me the woman that I am today. Ms. Summer’s was my kindergarten teacher at Crispus Attucks. She was my inspiration to become a teacher. I hate that the buildings were demolished because after that, crime went up I. Chicago. We were dispersed throughout the city and that wasn’t good for a lot of our male family members.

  10. My mom moved in Robert Taylor in 1966, she was pregnant, and delivered my baby brother inside the apartment we lived in, there were good times, and bad times, but the good times out weighed the bad, after my oldest brother died in 1974 , we moved out, I was 15 at the time, I’ve came a long way since then, and know living in the projects helped mold me, and helped make me who I am today, I’m 63, and retired, and living my best life in my dream home, sometimes when I think about my childhood I smile, and wouldn’t change a thing about my childhood, and the nice ppl that shared my childhood in the jets✨💝

  11. My name when I lived in the Robert Taylor Homes (3919 s. Federal) was Sonia Perkins. We moved in August of 1969 to New Jersey but I would come back during the summers not to visit the projects but to visit Chicago. I love the city any have both good and bad memories of living there. I would love it if someone would start a facebook page so we could continue to communicate with all who lived there.

  12. Annie Howell lived at 4950 State, apt 1408 from 1963 to 1966 with 3 kids, Diane, Ronny & Theresa. Looking for families that lived in that building, The Harris and Cartright Family , Howard Family

  13. My mother was the lady who founded the after-school program she spoke about with the two apartments together in 4037 on the 2nd floor . It was called Robert Taylor P.y. c.o (parent and youth community organization. We lived in 4022 south state apt.1108 and when I was 8 we moved out and my mom the founder Minster Elaine Torry wanted to give something back to the community so she started this after school program. That changed lives,helped family’s in need as well as facing the loss of her oldest and only son witch started stocking in remembrance to those who lost their lives to violent crimes that would hang in museums in chicago. Her board was made up of community leaders such as George the grocery store owner,who supplied food and other goods for events. Dawson college food service director Mr. Doyle Edgecombe and a host of young me that were called gangbanger but none to Mrs. TORRY AS HER BOYS. I COULD GO ON AND ON BUT THAT MEANS YOU WOULDNT BUY THE BOOK . THANK YOU !!!

  14. It’s been really refreshing to read these fond memories from former residents of the projects. Prior to this I never heard of anything good coming from the projects. I lived in Brookfield, and the Lakeview H S area for 2 years in high school, before moving back to WI in the late 60’s, so I’ve heard plenty about the projects, but it was always bad, but of coarse it was always from other white people. I’m glad to hear that residents could have normal lives there, and even the gangbangers had a sense of community. It’s good to hear from so many residents who have gone forward to have good productive lives. IDK, maybe I don’t even belong here, as an outsider, and white, but I have an open mind and I’m always trying to learn and have a better understanding of this thing we call life, that we’ve all been thrust into, and hopefully with more knowledge and understanding I can help others navigate the jungle that our society is.

  15. My name is Erma Marie Rader Rader is my maiden name my Father Samuel A. Rader my Mother Erma Jean Rader move to 5323 So. Federal when I was a child in 1963 /62 the building was new and we were amongst the first families to move in what a wonderful life for me and my siblings my baby sister Betty and I attended Terrell grade school my my others Dusable upper grade & dusble high we played in the playground all day Neigbor hood bikes that everyone shared boys scouts for my brothers and paper routs the bude billington parades where there would be all kinds of treats if you over filled your arms they would snatch some out the Washington Park swimming pools in the summer were my fav you had to be clean the attendant would rub the inside of your arm just below your elbow to see if dirt balls would form if they did they would send you packing and tell you to take a bath you had to have leget swimming attire to or no entry for you we swim and played all day in the water one more thing you had to have a dry towel and bathing cap if you were a girl sometimes we would explore the park to afterwards it was a long walk home passing the regal theater jame brown’s smoky Robinson and other well known head liners entertain there there was the butternut bakery on our route back home to the silver cup bakery was right behind our building and the bread smelled so good baking like I said magical it was like growing up in a village we would even have fresh milk Delois gallon glass jugs fresh butter orange juice and eggs and no one touched any neighbors that fresh milk was delivered in gallon glass jugs we had a laundry room a janitor lived on site we lived in apt 1201 on the twelfth floor of a 16storie building it was a godly the heat radiated from the floors we had a view of the Chicago skyline after moving from 1709 west Hasting st. It was a god send and there’s more to tell

  16. My name is Richard Williams, I grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes and it made me into the man that I am today. My building was 5326 apt 1506. I remember wearing the same clothes everyday and trying to fit in with the gang. Robert Taylor homes showed me how to be tough and to want more for my kid’s. I now have a six figure income and live in Nashville. I’ll never forget where I came from. 5trey all day

  17. Some beautiful heartfelt stories! – these make me want to know you all more and listen to you all, all day. I can see the very special parts of living there, the strong community bonds you still have and how difficult and beyond painful that they were severed in such a heart wrenching and public manner. I’m a firm believer that there’s good and bad everywhere and it’s nice to learn and hear about the good parts through the perspective of people that actually experienced it.

  18. I was a Lutheran seminarin assigned to one building the summer of 1974 with Holy Trinity on 47th St under Rev. Larry Morkert. We spent each day in one building for Bible studies. Dr MLK visited our playground one Sat. on his way to city hall to raise city worker wages. My Iowa farm parents enjoyed a Sunday dinner of chatting & greens at a member’s apt. I left my 22 yr. Old heart there. I treasure the kids still at 80 yr. old.

  19. I grew up poor in the Bronx and can relate to a lot of these stories. I love the energy and hope in the memoirs expressed here. Please start a Facebook page and share much more about growing up in a difficult place but with so much hope for the future.

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