by: Tim Penich, Architecture 424, November 13, 2007
On March 5, 1962 the first residents moved into the Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s South Side, at the time the world’s largest public housing development. Mayor Richard J. Daley and other local dignitaries present hailed the new public housing development as one of the “most attractive and livable [communities] in Chicago” (Demissie 8). While acclaim and fanfare surrounded the opening of many public housing projects in the City of Chicago, hate and fear were present during most of the planning stages of these developments.
In 1949, the State of Illinois passed legislation requiring city council approval for all public housing sites located in cities with populations in excess of five-hundred thousand. This act, passed with the urging of powerful white interests in Chicago, gave the city council unprecedented authority. The Chicago City Council now had the power to pick and choose where new public housing sites would be located. The city council would use this power to assure Chicago Neighborhoods would remain segregated. As a result by 1969, the family public housing projects in Chicago had a population that was ninety-nine percent African-American while nearly one-hundred percent of the family public housing units were located in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. It was at this time that the Chicago Housing Authority was found guilty of discrimination by a federal judge. When ordered to build the next 700 public housing units in white neighborhoods, the city all but halted the construction of public housing.
Urban Renewal projects were also used by the city to help segregate African-Americans. In 1962, the Dan Ryan Expressway was built on the South Side of Chicago. The expressway was constructed immediately west of the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens developments. The highway was built here to prevent the movement of African-Americans into the Bridgeport neighborhood which was home to Mayor Richard J. Daley.
The Robert Taylor Homes, which were hailed as the most livable community in Chicago when they opened in 1962, had by the early 1970’s turned into a ghetto far worse than the slum it had replaced. While not fully responsible, the complex’s design did play a role in its demise. The design of the Robert Taylor Homes and many other public housing projects are deeply rooted in the ideas of the modern architect Le Corbusier. As a result the Taylor Homes were made up of large high-rise towers situated in great open spaces. The design proved to further segregate its residents as the Robert Taylor Homes’ large superblocks were the antithesis of the surrounding areas. The lack of jobs and services included within the complex left the open spaces void of activity making it easy for drug dealers and gangs to take over.
While the design and location of the Robert Taylor Homes helped to lay the groundwork for the development to ultimately fail, one single event, while seemingly good natured, helped to transform public housing projects across the country from beacons of hope for the underprivileged to prisons for the poor. In 1969, the United States Congress passed legislation that called for rent collected from public housing residents to be based on income rather than being a set rate as it had previously been. This action proved to further segregate public housing as now nearly all of the residents were unemployed single mothers.
In 1995, the Robert Taylor Homes were categorized as non-viable by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. This meant that they were in such poor condition they had to be torn down. On March 8, 2007, forty-five years after its opening, the last tower of the Robert Taylor Homes was torn down.
In 2000, the Chicago Housing Authority began to implement its “Plan for Transformation.” This plan would help to reintegrate public housing developments into surrounding communities. This is to be accomplished by tearing down the high-rise developments and replacing them with low to mid-rise buildings lining new streets that would dissect the former superblocks. The plan also looks to integrate many different types of people as one-third of the units will be public housing, one-third affordable housing and one-third market rate housing. While the plan is being met with great fanfare and acclaim, one cannot help but look at it skeptically and hope the problems that plagued the Robert Taylor Homes do not plague this new “Plan for Transformation.”
(source: "Segregating Chicago: A Look at Housing and Race in the Second City," by: Tim Penich, Architecture 424, November 13, 2007