Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Twenty-eight buildings, each sixteen stories tall, housing 27,000 people at its peak, the Robert Taylor Homes once cast a long, gray shadow across the South Side of Chicago. From a distance, the horseshoe shaped complexes were merely concrete monoliths, faceless buildings towering over the nearby expressway and expansive fields of pavement stretching across Chicago’s grid. However, when afforded a closer observation, the housing project appeared far different; complexes filled with thousands of people, and with it, thousands of individual lives, each with compelling pasts, presents, and futures. The Robert Taylor Homes cannot be simplified to the planning disaster and decrepit buildings they were, because in reality, they were so much more than just their physical form: after all, they were homes. It was decided that the Robert Taylor Homes were to be destroyed in 1993, a decision that would lead to a diaspora of residents across the South Side of Chicago in the decade that followed. Weeks before the final tower was destroyed, former Columbia University student Sudhir Venkatesh decided to spend time getting to know some of the housing project’s residents and follow their lives as they began the process of relocating. The following stories were a product of that project.

Chuck Shepherd lived in the Robert Taylor Homes for 24 years.

Twenty-nine years old, with mental and physical disabilities, his apartment was a tough place to live. A bucket under his sink collected water that gushed out of a crack in the pipe. Bugs scurried around his walls and behind his refrigerator. A faulty meter made Chuck’s electric bill skyrocket to completely unaffordable heights, yet Chuck was continually hassled for rent by his landlords. However, no matter the price of the utility bill, no matter how much the sink leaked, or how much the cockroaches bugged him at night, Chuck never wanted to leave. His family worried about him, as his epilepsy often caused him to have seizures, leaving him at danger if he was ever left alone for a long period of time. They wanted him to leave the housing project for a place where he could be under regular supervision, but the potential for finding a place like that for a good price was low. His neighbors at the Robert Taylor Homes were familiar with his condition and were able to keep an eye on his health and respond if anything went awry. They were an informal support system that kept him safe and allowed him a certain level of  independence.

When the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) decided to demolish the building that housed the community he so strongly depended on, Chuck didn’t know what to do. He had missed the meeting with the CHA on the day they handed out vouchers—forms that allowed displaced residents to pay discounted rent for a privately-owned apartment in the city—because he was stranded downtown, unable to find a taxi willing to drive to the Robert Taylor Homes. The CHA eventually moved Chuck to the Dearborn Homes, another public housing project just a few blocks North of the Robert Taylor Homes. To Chuck, living in a new housing project put him in danger; he didn’t know anyone, he would be living alone, and he couldn’t rely on his neighbors to help take care of him. The destruction of the Robert Taylor Homes signified a destruction of Chuck’s support system, and the end to his precious network of neighbors.

Robert Taylor Homes, (1963). Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

Lee-Lee Henderson lived in an apartment with her mother, Dawn, and her two children.

Lee-Lee grew up in public housing and always considered the projects her safe haven. No matter how rough or unsafe they were made out to be in the news or by word-of-mouth, Lee-Lee felt secure in the Robert Taylor Homes. Upon being forced out of the Robert Taylor Homes, Lee-Lee’s greatest priority was finding a safe place for her kids to live; a place where they could freely walk on the streets and enjoy time outdoors. After receiving her Section 8 voucher, she found an apartment where she could pay only sixteen dollars a month, and although the location was less ideal than she had hoped, it was the best option available. Her stay in that apartment lasted a short while, and throughout that year, Lee-Lee was continually pushed around the South Side of Chicago looking for housing options. She had been a chronic victim of landlord neglect, often living for just short periods of time in different housing arrangements before being forced to move out. After this experience, her old apartment in the Robert Taylor Homes had become far more appealing than her new arrangement. It was in that apartment that she had stability, she had her mother in the house taking care of her kids for her, and she had the community that she loved around her. For better or for worse, the Robert Taylor Homes was the best living situation Lee-Lee ever had. Affordable housing options available to her and her family while receiving no income were hard to find, and the promise of finding an arrangement that would last was bleak.

Dawn never had a lease in the Robert Taylor Homes.

She wasn’t a squatter, she was just like any other resident of the housing project, just not on any lease. Instead of living as a legal resident in the Homes, Dawn floated between apartments to help her daughter and other young mothers. She babysat children, helped out with routine chores, and cooked meals for families. She was among many people who lived in the Robert Taylor Homes informally. Although when the time came to relocate, she wasn’t as lucky as the lease holders. Her family was unable to accommodate her in their new home, and she couldn’t find any apartments for an affordable rate without a Section 8 voucher, a privilege only granted to lease holders in public housing. Legally, Dawn’s only choice was to join a three-year long waitlist to live in a studio apartment with subsidized rent due to her physical disability. This was obviously not a viable option, and Dawn was forced to once again live illegally off the lease in her family’s house, hoping not to get caught. Her friends urged her to move to the suburbs, or even to North Carolina where she had extended family, but Dawn was intent on staying home, in Chicago.

These stories were recorded by Venkatesh and published in his documentary Dislocation. They revealed the Robert Taylor Homes for what they truly were: homes. These were not merely horseshoe shaped boxes, they were filled with lives, experiences, vibrancy, community, and mutual love. The dull concrete façade and monotonous pavement parking lots were only a poorly conveyed image of the Robert Taylor Home’s true beauty.

Despite this beauty, however, we must also reconcile with the reality of the situation. These homes were the culmination of decades of disinvestment, segregation, and exclusion that had run the South Side of Chicago into a state of disrepair. It was a faint-hearted solution to a problem that didn’t have to exist, and one that would forever change the South Side. However, the absurdity of the situation lies not solely in the construction of the Homes, but also in their abrupt destruction, a failure that ended up adding an entirely new dimension to the trends of racialized disinvestment seen throughout the 20th century. Just as this community, which had already felt the pains of a community destroyed, had finally rebuilt and morphed their relationships around these buildings, the CHA suddenly destroyed them.

The Robert Taylor Homes were a failure; an agent of disarray that left a scar on the city’s most vulnerable populations. But the beauty that persisted despite these circumstances shouldn’t be glossed over. In the pavement lots that surrounded the homes, in the hallways lined with chain-link fences, in the apartments with dripping sinks and scampering bugs, a beauty persisted. It was the beauty of friendship and communal understanding. Among the violence and disparagement existed endless examples of love and care.

Following the destruction of its final tower, the relationships bound together by the Robert Taylor Homes were dispersed around the South Side, throughout the Midwest, and across the United States. The Robert Taylor Homes may be gone, but the many people who once called those towers home remain.

Robert Taylor Demolition, (2006). Courtesy of Kenneth Smith