Sharon Cohen, AP, October 7, 2006
Chicago — The menacing row of concrete towers where four of Katie Sistrunk’s children were shot is almost all gone now, replaced by weeds and fields, mud and memories.
The cage-like balconies that looked like prison tiers to Beauty Turner have all but disappeared.
The gangs that peddled crack to Krystal McCraney Moore have found new places to haunt.
One hollow-eyed lookout still paces at the entrance of the last high-rise, watching for police so he can alert drug dealers who lurk in the graffiti-scarred, darkened stairwells.
This is the end of the Robert Taylor Homes, the final days of what once was the nation’s largest housing project. Four decades ago, its 28 towers overflowed with thousands of some of the poorest people in America. Now there’s just one rotting building and a few dozen holdout tenants.
This month, the stragglers will leave, some reluctantly, a step ahead of the wrecking ball.
The rise and fall of Taylor is the story of a Great Society promise that became a debacle, of intimidating high-rises that became a national symbol of failure, of a community that, at times, became a war zone.
It’s also the story of poor people who survived an unforgiving world of roaches and rats, frozen pipes and broken elevators, vicious gangs and drugs — but still mourn a place they called home.
“It’s the end of an era,” says Turner, a resident for 16 years who became an activist and chronicler of public housing. “It’s the end of a community. You can say the people who made it through these buildings had the courage of a lion and the strength of an elephant. … But they had no say, they were voiceless.”
The obituary for the Taylor Homes might read this way:
Born in 1962. Welcomed by politicians with fanfare. Doomed by age 5. Ailing for decades. Dead at age 44. Among the causes: mismanagement, shrinking federal dollars, government blundering, neglect, poor design, drugs and, above all, too many poor people packed in too little space.
Survivors: tens of thousands.
Taylor has been coming down for the past decade, building by building, part of a nationwide movement to rid big cities of decaying, dangerous housing that warehoused the poor.
Nearly 186,000 public housing units have been approved for demolition in Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia and several other cities, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. About 80 percent already are gone.
The federal government also has allocated about $5.6 billion to refashion former public housing areas into smaller communities that combine families of different incomes.
But among big cities, Chicago’s public housing stands apart.
It has the most ambitious blueprint for starting over: a $1.6 billion, 10-year “Plan for Transformation” to demolish most family gallery-style public housing high rises (44 of 53 are already gone) and replace them with mixed-income communities.
It also has the most notorious history, with a seemingly endless list of tragedies. Just this May, a 21-year-old woman from California with bipolar disorder mysteriously plummeted from the seventh floor of Taylor’s last tower. A reputed gang member has been charged with assault and kidnapping. The woman survived, with brain injuries.
Along with the horrors are scandals and corruption that led to a four-year federal takeover of the Chicago Housing Authority in the 1990s. Despite major changes and progress since then, the past has proven hard to forget.
“Chicago is the largest story of failure,” says D. Bradford Hunt, a Roosevelt University professor who’s writing a book about the city’s public housing. “It created these enormous ghettos that were so cut off … They really were islands in the city.”
The Taylor Homes — whose population was 99 percent black — was the grandaddy of them all, two miles of 16-story towers, more than 4,300 apartments shadowing the busy Dan Ryan Expressway. The Ryan was a dividing line — black to the east, white to the west.
Along with four other projects on the South Side, Taylor was part of a stretch once considered the highest concentration of poor people in America.
The new community planned is a dramatic departure — 2,500 rental apartments, condominiums and townhouses, only a third for public housing residents, no building taller than four stories. Some are skeptical such an ambitious project will come to pass.
But the point is obvious: Avoid the conditions that spawned Taylor which, at its peak in the mid 1960s, swelled with 27,000 residents, three-fourths of them children. It was the kids who got hurt playing in elevator shafts, the kids who died in gang crossfire.
“I saw so many kids get killed … and I didn’t want that to happen to my child,” says Katie Sistrunk, who says four of her 13 children were shot at Taylor. She calmly details the arm and leg wounds they suffered and the exact spot each was injured — the playground, the elevator, the streets. The lesson was clear: No place was safe.
“I called it little Beirut,” she says. “Even if you could relax for a minute, it wouldn’t be nothing but a moment. You were never at a place where you could say, ‘Things are going to be fine.’”
Taylor became a city within a city, fueled by an underground economy. People sold everything from food to compact discs from their apartments. The big-ticket items, though, were heroin, crack, cocaine and marijuana sold by gangs who commandeered buildings. By one estimate, between $5,000 and $10,000 in drug money changed hands daily in the early 1990s — a time when nearly 96 percent of the residents, many single mothers, were jobless.
One tower was wryly dubbed “Freedom Town,” meaning every kind of drug was sold freely within its walls.
There’s no mystery now why Taylor failed.
“You just can’t stack poor people on poor people … where there are no jobs, the schools are failing, there’s no grocery store, no pharmacy, all the things you take for granted in a community,” says Terry Peterson, who recently stepped down as Chicago Housing Authority chairman.
But 44 years ago, the doors opened with great hope.
“This project represents … what all of us feel America should be — and that is a decent home for every family,” Mayor Richard J. Daley said at the dedication in 1962.
Even then, there were doubts.
Daley — father of the current mayor, Richard M. Daley — didn’t want high rises and had been warned they’d be hard to manage and unwholesome for families, Hunt says. But voters who were the backbone of Daley’s political machine opposed public housing in their neighborhoods, empty land was scarce and the federal government balked at the high costs of low rises.
So Taylor was built. And every dire prediction came true.
“You can blame Mayor Daley but he didn’t do it alone. He had the backing of city government and HUD,” says Susan Popkin, author of “The Hidden War: Crime and the Tragedy of Public Housing in Chicago.”
Popkin also says the bungled concept for public housing extended to the design: no showers, outdoor elevators vulnerable to Chicago winters, pipes that were frequently vandalized and caused flooding. “You couldn’t have built those things any more clearly to say, ‘You don’t matter,’” she says.
But early on, Taylor — named after the first black housing authority chairman — did seem a welcome change. Its large apartments and new appliances had replaced cold-water flats and slums.
“Growing up was good,” says David Wilson, who was literally born in Taylor 38 years ago. “Three bedrooms, sheesh, man you thought you was in heaven. At night it was beautiful. There were lights on every porch.”
Wilson’s childhood was typical of the early days; his family was headed by two, working-class parents. “Everybody knew everybody,” he says. “If your child got lost, he got found. At night, you didn’t see any kids. Everybody back then was scared of their parents.”
The good days faded fast.
From 1967 to 1974, the percentage of working-class families plummeted from 50 percent to 10 percent, Hunt says; those on public aid jumped from slightly more than a third to 83 percent.
The downward spiral continued.
Over the next 20 years, jobs in steel and other smokestack industries that offered black workers a steppingstone into the middle class disappeared. Federal budgets shrank. The buildings deteriorated; garbage piled up from broken incinerators, mailboxes and laundry rooms were vandalized. Repairs took months. After a fatal fire in the 1990s, one building was found to have 436 code violations.
The vacancy rate rose. Empty apartments, many on the top floor, became drug dens. The crack epidemic exploded. So did gang violence.
When Beauty Turner arrived in 1986, she witnessed the shooting of a teenage boy on her very first day.
“It angered me — not just with the people who did it, but with the system around it,” she says. “I was outraged about many things — the way the elevators would break down, the way elderly people could not get up into their houses, the way the place looked, the way the management company spoke to the people.”
She began organizing meetings, writing letters, testifying before congressional committees, agitating for change — while raising three children, all of whom graduated from college. She also became a reporter for the Residents’ Journal, an award-winning bimonthly publication for and by public housing residents.
Turner’s building was leveled four years ago but she didn’t wait to be forced out — she left after she woke one night to find a giant rat nuzzling near her face.
So far, of about 1,550 people who lived in Taylor as of 1999, about two-thirds have chosen federal vouchers that help pay their rent; the remainder have left public housing.
By next spring, the last building will fall. The Taylor name will be history.