In 1995, Henry Cisneros, secretary of Housing and Urban Development for the Clinton administration, called Bronzeville’s Robert Taylor Homes “without question, the worst public housing in America today.” Though the homes are gone, their legacy remains a sore spot in the history of Chicago’s public housing.
The twenty-eight Robert Taylor Homes made up the largest housing project in the U.S. at the time of their completion in 1962. At sixteen stories tall each, the complex’s buildings contained over 4,400 apartments. The monolithic structures stretched from Pershing Road down to 54th Street, bordering the Dan Ryan Expressway to the west and State Street to the east,
Named for Robert Taylor, the Chicago Housing Authority’s first African-American chairman, the project was intended to provide adequate housing for low-income African-American families. The location of the homes was no coincidence; in accordance with the laws of the time, the residents of a housing project could not alter the racial makeup of the area.
The plans were misguided and chronically underfunded, and the Robert Taylor Homes were ultimately a failure. The buildings were perpetually overcrowded, peaking at 27,000 residents despite being designed to hold no more than 11,000. They were also in a constant state of disrepair.
Though the project came to exemplify the failures of public housing, it was still a home for thousands of residents. In 1996, HOPE VI, a program started by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to replace failed modernist housing projects with mixed-income communities, allocated federal block grants to redevelop the Homes. The residents were gradually moved out by 2005, and the final building was demolished in 2007.
Redevelopment of the area has been a slow process, however, and replacing such a vast housing project with low-rise apartments and houses has proved to be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. According ABC 7 Chicago, critics say that only 300 of Robert Taylor’s 4,400 apartments have been replaced with affordable housing. Since 2007, Brinshore Development, one of the top producers of affordable housing in Illinois, has constructed 840 of the projected 2,400 mixed-income units of its Legends South Development on the site of the Homes. Part of the project has created government-subsidized affordable housing, with the other portion remaining at market rate. According to Brinshore Principal Richard Sciortino, “This allows us to have a healthy mix of incomes, so we can attract working families.”
Plans have also been announced to add a $9.8 million, 112,000-square-foot tennis facility to the area (see page 17). Despite its troubled legacy, the hope is that new structures on the site might bring some of the benefits that the development failed to provide the first time around. Progress may be slow, but investment in the Washington Park neighborhood’s revitalization efforts was what was missing in the original Robert Taylor Homes project.
I used to live in the Robert Taylor Homes from 1992-1994. I do miss the homes at times because i had lots of childhood memories living in the homes, 5100 S. State St. Apt 1510. Now that they are gone, what is the plan for replacement and will it still be low income housing for residents who needs housing?
I lived there in the 60s, I remember my neighbors like family. Very fond memories of my childhood growing up in 5352 South State Street. I particularly remember the step at the door because I sat there in brand new red tennis shoes, I was probably 3 or 4 years old, my feet were hurting and I fondly remember peading to my mother about those shoes hurting my feet. I sat there defeated made to wear them I sat hurting, at the time I didn’t know how well those feet would serve as later growing up in the Robert Taylor Homes we had the best of the worst. Wall to wall children and families having memories of the love and respect we were taught, we played ball, jump rope double dutch hide and seek, even played school. Our teenage friends were great role models and we couldn’t wait to become one. Watched the the movie the Birds with our friends, we’d walked and tour surrounding neighborhoods making up stories with our friends about wholesome childhood mystery using our imaginations and invisible friends. Developed our first crushes, received the first free lunch without telling our parents, in a sense double dipping as kids, hell the penny candy store like Mr. Johnson or Mr. Cadillac had the best nut chews and mint juleps you could get two for a penny. Our parents worked, all the parents worked unless someone’s mom was a housewife. I remember my baby sister coming home from the hospital, my mom sitting on the couch holding her and almost the whole floor of parents and children inside our home or standing outside to see our new baby sister. I remember the house parties our parents had. We use to go downstairs to buy snow cones from a lady selling them from her station wagon. We always called parents and adults Mr. or Mrs with either their first or last name. It’s really sad how the city allowed those residents to sink or swim under the leadership call government. I wished things were better because looking at high rises in other states that are way more expensive, the truth …Robert Taylor Homes floor model were the best, more spacious, if up graded kitchens and bathrooms those apartments would have been role models for affordable living minus the drugs and high unemployment or broken spirits wanting to do harm to others. Most of the newer expensive high rises have similar issues but somehow their drug dealers and gangs don’t bring down living conditions.
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