The Robert Taylor Homes: Failure of Public Housing

Written by on June 4, 2013 in Urban Fringe - 20 Comments

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.

A photograph of the Robert Taylor Homes, taken in the early 1960s, Source: http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/robert-taylor-homes-opens.

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.

Young children at play in the abandoned hallways of the Robert Taylor Homes in 2003, Photo by Jack Bridges.

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 arielprince@berkeley.edu

  • Kevin Cooper

    Interesting perspective of Robert Taylor Homes.

    You pointed out several interesting stats out like 95% of RTH were unemployed. What do you think contributed to such a high number? You mentioned the value of daily drug deals on-site in the same sentence as the unemployment stat. Does that mean you think these stats are related? I do not think that is exactly the case.

    I would bet that the City Planners of the day were 100% aware of the relationship between proper facility condition and external safety. Sometimes you can be completely aware of something and do not have the power to change it. For instance, you are aware homelessness exists – can you end homelessness? For adequate maintenance dollars to be invested into RTH – it had to be a group effort – the public, politicians planners, housing administrators all have to be on the same-page to commit a financial commitment. That was obliviously not the case for RTH from your description of the end result.

    Your unbiased – critical education has shattered your negative connotation of RTH, but you still believe RTH is a tremendous public housing failure. I think what RTH stood for – housing for all – was noble, but the execution of this housing development is another tragic example of a positive transformative project falling through the cracks because of a lack of financial commitment.

    Great job on the article. I am definitely interested to see where your studies take you.

    I will be visiting Chicago for the first time this October and I am hoping to see the site of RTH and some of the Black Belt. I am a Urban and Regional Planning Student from Toronto and I am very passionate about all things housing. :)

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  • Jason Rayford

    i have visited the robert taylor homes in 1991 and it was very much depressing

  • Jason Rayford

    the disapointmet of the people the cha

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  • Kenya T.

    It is no coincidence that Martin Luther King chose Chicago as the lynchpin of his Poor Peoples Campaign and plan to spread the movement to northern cities. After the second migration, Chicago was faced with having many undereducated and untrained blacks fleeing from Mississippi and other southern states that oppressed blacks. However there weren’t enough jobs and housing for these people who weren’t even wanted where they fled from let alone in Chicago. I don’t believe these high rise homes were ever given long term thought. It would have certainly been an easier task to maintain the buildings than to try to solve the problem once it was impossible to manage on any level. The attitude of Daley was to let the monkeys kill eachother. Like every other urban decay in American cities the attitude was and still is to let it take care of itself unless tourist dollars and high end taxpayers are affected. It is not a naive reason why the projects of America are full of all the undesirable people. They are only destroyed when gentrification becomes an option….

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  • assman35

    So basically after witnessing a massive public policy failure your conclusion is that we need more government. Predictable.

  • 5DmarkIII

    The saddest sight I ever saw was driving north on I94 and seeing what looked like mile after mile of bleak skyscrapers. This was in August 1996. I learned later that by that point the complex was mostly empty and demolition had started soon after.

    I know they had the best intentions (supposedly), but whoever thought this place was a good idea were out of their goddamn minds.

  • Angela

    Tell me, how is no business in the area, and no jobs for the people a failure of the government? When a bunch of white people move into an area, they create jobs, and employ others. When a bunch of blacks move into an area, not only do they rarely create a single job, but they create white flight. If there are no banks in the area now infested with crime and arson, do you wonder why? Who are killing all those babies too BTW? With all the welfare checks going for drugs, smoking and alcohol the mothers are not only unhealthy when they are having these babies, generally out of wedlock, and very young, but they are unable to or unwilling to take care of thm. This is just typical behavior of the poor all over Africa too. Infact, without significant white genes, like in North and west Africa, the Africans have an IQ of 70, which we deem retarded in white civilization. The sad fact is, you can’t get a job that isn’t a stupid job, and a low wage even unless you have at least an 85 IQ. That only comes with being a mixed race Black. So when you see the high black on black crime in the ghetto, it is generally the stupid and unemployed ones killing or beating up the smarter mixed Uncle Toms. This is sad. I heard that right after a 5 year old kid refused to steal candy with some other kids, they were tossed off the roof of this housing project. That is how the gang mentality of blacks works. Watch out if they are crossed or snitched on! That is why the people were always warned to stay away from the ghetto. . .the people there are cruel and only out for themselves. Come to find out that is due to low empathy from low Oxitocin of their whole race. Add to that the high testosterone their race has, causing low impulse control, rage and passion, you have a volitile combination that results in high crime, and inability to get a job or keep it. Even retarded whites can be useful parts of society, as they are team players and not violent, but pure black people act ghetto wherever they are in the world, and it is simply in their blood. Excusing their neighborhoods as anyone’s fault but theirs is sheer idiocy. I mean like, why is the litter all over the area? Why is there no such thing as a family? Why does no one even try to start little home businesses like doing hair, or shopping or massaging or the like? Lazy, entitled, stupid and violent blacks expect the government to support them, and yet aren’t even doing work in return. Slavery was a fair trade IMO, as they can do nothing else when they have a low IQ. . .the mixed blacks belong in a category all their own though. (Bi-racial.) With a mix you never know what parent they will take after, just as when you breed a purebred poodle with a purebred bulldog. Dark color is dominant, but high IQ also seems to often be. . .and thus you get the dark and intelligent Nigerians for instance. People need to know more about the pure breeding stock in order to understand racial differences. (Rednecks being in highly mixed areas according to DNA sites.) When they do it will show us all, we are not even close to the same, and race is far from a social construct, it stems from two species: Neanderthal and homo erectus. Rant over.

    • harvey2654

      You can’t be serious, right?

      • Angela

        I’m dead serious. I am a researcher and blogger on race and it’s been my passion for 5 years now.

    • Tameeka Suchaladiijones Jones

      @ angela ……you are a NIGGER since you so intelligent you know what that means right ?IT DOESNT HAVE TO BE ON OF AFRICAN RACE ITS SIMPLY SOMEONE WHO IS PLAIN OLE IGNORANT …SECONDLY ROBERT TAYLOR WAS MY HOME FOR MOST OF MY EARLY CHILD HOOD.HAVE YOU EVER BEEN THERE BEFORE LET ALONE STEP FOOT IN THERE!?NOT EVERY ONE WAS CRACKHEADS AND DRUNkS MY MOTHER WORKED TWELVE HOUR SHIFTS(MANY OTHERS WHERE EMPLOYED AS WELL)NO IT WASNT THE BEST LIVING CONDITIONS. BUT I TELL YOU I HAD SOME OF THE BEST TIMES OF MY LIFE AND CREATED SOME OF THE FONDEST MEMORIES THERE FOR YOUR INFO NE AND MOST OF MY PEERS FROM. THERE TURNED OUT TO BE SOME OF THE MOST PRODUCTIVE MEMBERS OF SOCIETY. IAM GETTING. ON YOU SPECIFGICALLY BECAUSE YOUR SPEAKIN ON SOMTHING YOU KNOW NONTHING ABOUT ALL YOUR WEAK SUPPORTING EVIDENCE YOU HAVE TO VALIDATE YOUR POINT IS FOOLISH DRUGS IS NOT JUST A BLACK POOR THING AND WELFARE ….STATISTICALLY SPEAKING(FACTS)MORE WHITES ARE ON IT THAN BLACKS AND YOU WANT TO MENTION THE DEATH OF A FIVE YEAR OLD OVER CANDY YOUR BREEDS OFFSPRING SHOOTING UP WHOLE SCHOOLS CAUSE. LITTLE BILLYS MOM TOLD HIM HE COULDNT HAVE A TOY YOU NEED A REALITY CHECK ….I DONT KNOW WHAT TIME YOU ARE STUCK IN IAM TRYING TO REFRAIN FROM USING A COUPLE OF CHOICE. WORDS BUT WHY PROVE YOUR THEORY RIGHT ON HOW UNINTELLIGENT BLACKS CAN BE AND TO CALL US LAZY. …LETS REVISIT SLAVERY …..WHO WORKED THE CROPS AND HARVESTED THEM WHO NURSED YOU ALLS LITTLE PALE FACED BABIES STRAIGHT FROM OUR OWN BREAST WHO KEPT THE LAND UP YOU ARE A DEGENERATE AND A WASTE OF TIME….AND WE ARE DIFFERENT.?LET HISTORY WENT DOWN THE OPPOSITE WAY AND WE CAME AND SNATCHED YOU ALL FROM YOUR WAY OF LIFE AND ALL YOU KNEW AND TAUGHT YOU TO HATE YOURSELF AND TO MENTALLY FUCK.YOUR SELF AND PAST IT DOWN GENERATION TO GENERATION ….YOU COULDNT WALK A DAY IN ONE OF OUR SHOES CAUSE YOU ARE TOO WEAK!