Growing up in the Chicagoland area, I was constantly told to avoid the area surrounding the Robert Taylor Homes. It was not a recommendation, but rather a command from my parents, repeated numerous times throughout my childhood. I never really questioned their reasons until this semester when I took a course on international housing in the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. I decided to do some research.
The Robert Taylor Homes, located on the South Side of Chicago, are widely considered the greatest public housing complex in the world—and one of the greatest historical public housing project failures. City planners and historians pinpoint limited eligibility, racist intentions, and overreaching modernist design for the poor outcomes. However, after looking into the project in more detail, I think it is equally essential to consider the placement of these projects in deserted areas as well as their lack of state-sponsored maintenance.
By the mid-1900s, nearly seventy-five percent of Chicago’s African American citizens resided in a series of neighborhoods on the South Side referred to as the “Black Belt.” The overwhelming majority of homes in the Black Belt were decrepit and nearly uninhabitable, and segregated economically, with the poorest African Americans residing on the northern tip, and their wealthier counterparts living on the southern end. Most strikingly, the Black Belt’s infant mortality rate was sixteen percent greater than anywhere else in Chicago between 1940 and 1960.
In 1946, the Chicago Housing Authority finally acknowledged the substandard living conditions of Black Belt ghetto residents and proposed the development of public housing in regions with lower populations within Chicago.
Although African Americans anticipated an improvement in their living conditions with the creation of public housing projects such as the Robert Taylor Homes in 1961, they were sadly mistaken. For this reason, I believe that the projects did more harm than good. The twenty-eight buildings were colossal and gloomy, reaching over fifteen stories each, with perpetually broken elevators. According to the Affordable Housing Institute, overcrowding was unavoidable, as over 27,000 individuals crammed into a space designed for no more than 11,000. Nearby streets were covered in litter, and the neighborhood lacked any semblance of banks, libraries, or even grocery stores; residents were thus unable to attain public services or purchase basic food staples.
Due to an “obsession with cutting cost,” the city of Chicago and state of Illinois lacked the requisite budget to keep the buildings in good condition, and they deteriorated drastically after only several years of existence as crime continued to dominate.Furthermore, it is somewhat troubling to learn that approximately ninety-five percent of Robert Taylor’s 27,000 tenants were unemployed, and drug deals worth nearly $45,000 took place each day. These numbers truly reveal the devastating conditions surrounding this massive, modernist housing project for low-income Chicago residents.
The Chicago Housing Association’s sanguine, post-war perspective on public housing simply resulted in a perpetuation of the already catastrophic subsidized housing on Chicago’s South Side. It is important to ponder the role public administrators played in establishing the budget for construction of the homes as well as their annual maintenance. I believe that until the demise of the Robert Taylor Homes, many city planners failed to recognize the association between proper facility maintenance and their external safety, such as low crime rates, as contrasted with the internal safety of the structures themselves.
Ultimately, I believe that public housing projects are described to young children from certain socioeconomic classes and ethnicities, like myself, with a negative connotation that most of us do not even think to challenge. The dismissive reputations of affordable housing ingrained in many children by their parents, whether intentionally or not, can tremendously shape our outlook on these federal actions as adults. Fortunately for those individuals like myself able to receive an unbiased, critical education, these perceptions are able to be shattered and we can see projects such as the Robert Taylor Homes for what they are: tremendous public housing failures that resulted from pairing lofty ambitions with insufficient funds.
Ariel Prince is an undergraduate student in Political Science at UC Berkeley. She focuses her studies on the intersection between government legislation and the overall well-being of citizens in the United States, and has spent significant time examining housing and financial policies following World War II. She can be reached at email@example.com.