Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes–once the nation’s largest public housing project–is currently being dismantled. Half of its buildings have already been torn down, and of those that are still standing only some are occupied. It is only a matter of time before the remainder will meet the wrecking ball.
Completed in 1962, the Robert Taylor Homes at one time housed more than 27,000 residents, all African-Americans, in twenty-eight identical sixteen-story buildings. While the housing project replaced one of Chicago’s worst slums, it became itself the stuff of legend–one of the nation’s most infamous and troubled housing communities. It is being demolished in response to federal pressure on the grounds that the projects are no longer habitable.
Sudhir Venkatesh’s new book, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, is both an ethnography and a history of the Taylor Homes from the 1960s through the mid-1990s. Venkatesh spent a year and a half hanging out, as he puts it, primarily with longtime tenant leaders and gang members. The result is a fascinating study of community dynamics between various groups of tenants, including leaders and members of the Black Kings gang, and how they created and lived what Venkatesh refers to as an “ordered environment”–against incredible odds.
One of the ironies of this story is that the Taylor Homes were named after a black chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) who served in the 1940s. Robert Taylor was committed to racial integration during a time when virtually all power blocs were opposed, albeit for different reasons. After the Federal Housing Act was passed in 1949 providing funds for more than 800,000 new units of public housing, Robert Taylor submitted a number of sites for the construction of a new housing project, which included vacant land in white communities. Chicago’s City Council–with the support of powerful black machine politician and political broker Congressman William Dawson (in power from 1942 to 1970), ministers of the largest black churches and the Chicago Defender–supported urban renewal instead: the razing of existing slums with the purpose of keeping the housing project inside Chicago’s black belt. The CHA used the federal funds to buy up poor neighborhoods and turn them over to private companies at bargain prices for demolition and commercial redevelopment. The residents of the slums were forced to move into different slums with the promise that they could apply for public housing sometime in the future. Robert Taylor’s career in public housing ended in 1950 over the issue of urban renewal, well before the projects named after him were completed.
Venkatesh’s portrayal of the Taylor Homes during its first decade depicts a complicated arrangement that to the uninitiated appears to have bordered on lawlessness and social instability. Tenants and the CHA maintained social order largely through such informal and formal female-led tenant organizations as the Mama’s Mafia, Mothers on the Move Against Slums, elevator committees and citizens’ committees, and CHA-organized Building Councils, which comprised tenants who were theoretically elected but often appointed. Each member of the community had his or her role in maintaining economic solvency and social control: There were the tenant leaders who had informal relationships with the local police, and the off-the-books entrepreneurs, including marijuana dealers, car mechanics, clothing sellers, pimps, prostitutes and proprietors of gambling parlors–all of whom paid taxes to tenant leaders who in turn paid off the police, thus avoiding investigation and allowing the much-needed informal economy to prosper. One informant, who operated an off-the-books car repair service with his brother in the Taylor Homes parking lot, recalled, “We paid our [tenant leaders] real good, so they’d keep the pigs off of us.”