What Went Wrong with Public Housing in Chicago? A History of the Robert Taylor Homes

Article excerpt

The largest concentration of public housing in America stands in a four-mile procession along Chicago's State Street, south of the city's central business district. Each project (five in all) grows successively more intimidating and imposing in scale, climaxing with the massive Robert Taylor Homes - 28 identical, 16-story high-rises, containing over 4,400 apartments. Named after the Chicago Housing Authority's first African American chairman, the Robert Taylor Homes opened in 1962 as the largest single public housing project in the country, housing 27,000 people when fully occupied, more than 20,000 of them children, and nearly all of them African American.1

In 1965, three years after the project's opening, the Chicago Daily News ran a six-part series describing conditions that horrified readers. Taylor residents, the series explained, faced a daily nightmare of broken elevators, erratic heat, excessive vandalism, and unsettling violence.2 By 1975, Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) budget crises, deepening maintenance woes, and escalating violence had driven out those with alternatives. That year, the CHA reported that one in eight units was vacant and 92% of Taylor's families relied upon government assistance. Taylor had become a national symbol of public housing failure. In 1996, CHA initiated plans to tear down the entire complex; as of the summer of 2000, ten of Taylor's 28 buildings had met the wrecking ball.3

What went wrong with the Robert Taylor Homes? How did a well-intentioned effort to house low-income families in a positive new environment instead produce the bleak, prison-like, demeaning warehouses for only the very poorest of black Chicagoans? Previous scholars have pointed to a formidable list of anti-public housing antagonists to explain the program's failure in most cities. Racist white local politicians interfered with site decisions, forcing segregated "second ghetto" locations.4 Real estate interests blocked quality construction and limited eligibility, ensuring public housing's second-class status.5 And modernist architects imposed untested design theories, creating dysfunctional, hideous, high-rises.6 The overriding conclusion of previous analysts is that public housing was basically a sound program that fell victim to forces beyond its control.

Recently opened archives of the Chicago Housing Authority provide new material for evaluating the policies that led to the construction of the Robert Taylor Homes, as well as the conditions that led to its ultimate failure.7 These archives point to explanations beyond external opposition and instead reveal internal policy weaknesses in the public housing program. Progressive administrators before and after World War II, motivated by an unassailably sincere desire to improve Chicago's housing conditions, planned to tear down large swaths of the city deemed "slums" and rebuild with large-scale, high-density, often high-rise housing exclusively for lowincome families. By the mid-1950s, administrators in Chicago recognized some of the problems created by this approach, namely the use of elevator buildings for families with small children. But bureaucratic squabbling and obsession with cost in the late 1950s blocked the CHA's efforts to reform its designs and build low-rise buildings. Importantly, the CHA proceeded reluctantly with high-rise designs when it began construction of Taylor in 1959. Once built, the CHA struggled to manage its sprawling project, as high youth densities, inadequate services, and maintenance failures created a demoralizing environment for tenants and staff alike. Decline came rapidly between 1967 and 1974, and Taylor spiraled downward into the city's most visible public shame.

To unravel the demise of the Robert Taylor Homes, four key policy areas are analyzed: site selection, design, tenant selection, and management. Each policy area involves a critical question in Taylor's history. First, why was Taylor built in its segregated, black belt location? …

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