The Death of High Rise Housing in Chicago

In what was dubbed the Plan for Transformation, Chicago Housing Authority has seen out the demolition of public housing high rise buildings deemed unfit for habitation, leaving thousands displaced or homeless and in worse condition than before.

Chicago High Rise Housing Demolition

In 1998, nearly nineteen thousand CHA high rise units failed viability inspection mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, meaning that under federal law the Authority was required to demolish those units within five years.

Photo by Fotolia/Henryk Sadura

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In the gripping first-person accounts of High Rise Stories (McSweeney’s Books and Voice of Witness, 2013), former residents of Chicago’s iconic public housing projects describe life in the now-demolished high rise buildings. These stories of community, displacement, and poverty in the wake of gentrification give voice to those who have long been ignored. The following excerpt comes from the introduction, “On Plans and Transformations.”

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Build up the cities.
Set up the walls again.
—Carl Sandburg, “And They Obey”

When the high rise buildings came down, footage of the demolition was posted on YouTube. There you can find—in montage, time-lapse, or real time—various stages of destruction of the Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, Rockwell Gardens, Grace Abbott Homes, Cabrini-Green, Lakefront Properties. There are videos of each high rise of Lakefront Properties being felled by implosion. Collapse occurs not all at once, but gradually, horizontally, with thick, smoky vapors of dust rising in the wake. Other public housing structures were dismantled with cranes, excavators, backhoes. Aside from the jackhammers briskly knocking through windows and concrete, so much of the machinery seems weary. In one video, a wrecking ball appears to move in slow motion as it swings back and then lands, crushing a wall painted robin’s egg blue.

When the high rises came down, there was official talk about progress. What was afoot was the Plan for Transformation: a $1.6 billion project and the largest public housing “redevelopment venture” in the United States. Announced in 1999, the ambitious plan reflected and reinforced national trends; many municipal governments in major cities (like New Orleans and Atlanta) demolished swaths of public housing structures and replaced them with voucher distribution programs and limited access to mixed-income developments. The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) unveiled a major advertising campaign to promote its agenda, rebranding itself with a slogan “This is CHAnge” and promising impacted CHA tenants, and the city at large, a fresh start. In Chicago, mirroring other neoliberal efforts across the country, planners have relied on the market to regulate the terms of what has been touted as full-scale reform. The vast majority of those directly impacted by wide-scale demolitions have been required to seek out housing in the private sector. For thousands, the outcomes have included displacement, multiple moves, and homelessness. In the current economy, the poverty rate is higher than ever in Chicago, as is the need for affordable housing.

When the high rises came down, TV cameras from all over the world were on-site. When the last towers of Cabrini and Robert Taylor Homes were toppled, coverage was the lead on the ten o’clock news. Scores of tourists and locals alike took snapshots as mementos, as proof. Now, thirteen years after the demolitions commenced, countless Chicagoans still know these lost places by heart. Eddie Leman clearly recalls Robert Taylor Homes where, for the first thirteen years of his life, he lived with his mother. “That’s probably something you don’t even see in a lot of cities anymore. Sixteen stories and what was it? About two hundred feet, you know? And about twelve, thirteen apartments on one floor. Each apartment got families.”

I am a South Sider who came of age in the early 1980s, the child of native Southerners. My first neighborhood was all-black, middle-class Chatham Village. At age seven, I moved with my family to Hyde Park–Kenwood, a relatively well-to-do, racially integrated community, now best known as Barack Obama’s adopted stomping grounds. When venturing out, I learned boundaries. Just across a field was busy East Forty-Seventh Street, lined with tenements, nightclubs, taverns, liquor stores, a meager grocery, a hardware store, and a funeral home. Postcard Chicago gleamed in the distance: the Sears Tower, the Standard Oil, the Prudential. Though my parents forbade me to traverse East Forty-Seventh alone, eventually I’d sneak across the much-trafficked thoroughfare to buy penny candies from the closest liquor store.

Ten blocks south of the townhouse where I grew up are the stately, Gothic halls of the University of Chicago. My forays onto the campus were more complicated. I wandered through quiet courtyards, intrigued by gargoyles crowning archways and alcoves, peeking through ivy. And I was regularly stopped short in my explorations, barred from entering public halls by uniformed guards who ordered me to leave. (Close to home, my brown skin often helped me blend into a crowd. But in the ever-emerging maze of the University of Chicago, it marked me as an outsider.)

To the west of my neighborhood, and closer to us than the city’s downtown skyscrapers, stood Robert Taylor Homes. Twenty-eight high rise buildings. Together they formed an imposing facade. Though my memory often fits them into my daily vista, I couldn’t actually see Robert Taylor Homes from my doorstep. Nonetheless, I saw them often—on the weekly bus ride to piano lessons, excursions to the ballpark, and fall and winter holiday drives to my aunt and uncle’s place on the Far West Side. I saw them often and I also imagined them. As I imagined them, the buildings were always over there. Despite their physical proximity, the buildings seemed remote, vividly unto themselves. They were terminally run-down. Robert Taylor Homes were public housing, back then the largest public housing complex in the United States. And while the peak of the Sears Tower seemed entirely reachable to me as a kid, Robert Taylor Homes were ever unknowable, ever apart.

When those buildings came down, starting in 2003, I was grown up, a resident of Urbana (in downstate Illinois), and a frequent visitor to my hometown. Word of the demolition of places like Robert Taylor Homes didn’t surprise me. City Hall’s rationales were what I expected; I’d followed headline stories about high rise public housing nearly all of my life. Nonetheless, the eventual destruction of these landmarks stunned me. The absence of the twenty-eight buildings of Robert Taylor Homes compelled me to reckon with their enormity as a community. What were those communities really like? I wondered. And where on earth did all those people go?

Chicago’s Black Belt took shape at the turn of the twentieth century. As a result of the Great Migration, the city’s black population increased eightfold from 1910 through the 1940s, and this growing population was relegated to a space that didn’t expand to accommodate the newcomers. Black Chicagoans were hemmed in principally to areas on the South Side (and secondarily on the West Side) of the city, forming what came to be called a “black metropolis”—a community of grand homes and boulevards alongside deplorable tenements. All too often, the tenement-style housing made infamous by Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha and Richard Wright’s Native Son—dilapidated and rat-infested—accurately captured the living conditions of thousands upon thousands of people in the Black Belt.

The Chicago Housing Authority was born in 1937 shortly after the New Deal Congress passed the Wagner-Steagall Act. The act provided funds for public housing construction and public housing subsidies to dozens of municipalities during the height of the Depression. Some of the first public housing developments in Chicago were designed as temporary housing for soldiers returning from war; others were open to applications from Chicago residents who could prove their family income was below an ever-changing threshold. Early Chicago public housing was strictly segregated. It was in keeping with federal policy (the Neighborhood Composition Rule developed by FDR’s Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes), that new developments were created in concert with the prevailing demographics of a given neighborhood— tenants of new housing developments were to be of the same race as their immediate neighbors. By the time the Ida B. Wells development was first opened in 1941, the Black Belt was dangerously overcrowded. So there was a great deal of optimism when the CHA opened a sixteen-hundred unit complex consisting of two-, three-, and four-story brick apartment buildings in the Douglas neighborhood. Indeed, the Ida B. Wells Homes formed a highly coveted address for African-Americans. More than eighteen thousand families filed applications to live there.

One may not readily think of housing developments as large neighborhoods, but in the case of Chicago, politics and architecture converged to make this so. In opposition to early CHA policies that endorsed row houses and small multi-family buildings as more socially productive and family-friendly, Mayor Richard J. Daley (in office from 1955 until his death in 1976) and the CHA opted for the high rise as the new model of public housing. The Chicago public housing development became iconic: the high rise shouldered by matching high rises, expanses of grass framing the whole. In 1962, at the groundbreaking for Robert Taylor Homes, the mayor addressed the throng under a banner that read:

 GOOD HOMES BUILDING GOOD CITIZENS

“This project represents the future of a great city,” the mayor said. “It represents vision. It represents what all of us feel America should be, and that is: a decent home for every family...”

Robert Taylor Homes were named after the CHA’s first black board member—notably, a man who resigned in 1950 out of frustration with the city’s recalcitrance toward integration of public housing—and comprised twenty-eight sixteen-story buildings slated to house eleven thousand people. The Dan Ryan Expressway was erected in 1962, in tandem with the construction of Robert Taylor Homes, effectively keeping white ethnic neighborhoods (including Mayor Daley’s own Bridgeport) on one side of the fourteen-lane expressway and the new public housing on the other. At its peak, in 1964, Robert Taylor Homes housed twenty-seven thousand people—twenty thousand of them children. Robert Taylor Homes became part of the State Street corridor, with four major public housing developments taking up four consecutive miles of city in all.

Defunded by city, state, and federal governments over the course of the 1970s forward, high rise public housing was chronically neglected and mismanaged. Common physical plant troubles encountered by residents have included backed-up incinerators, perpetually broken elevators, and infestations of roaches and vermin. These problems were compounded by ongoing crises that occasionally made the national nightly news: rampant gang drug dealing, turf wars, and gun violence.

Whereas Richard J. Daley ushered in the revolution in high rise public housing in Chicago, his son Richard M. Daley (1980–2010) was at the helm of its systematic dismantling. Summarizing his intentions, Mayor Richard M. Daley would profess his desire to “rebuild people’s souls.” His CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority, Terry Peterson, would refer to the targeted high rises as “Godawful buildings.” In 1998, nearly nineteen thousand CHA units failed viability inspection mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, meaning that under federal law the Authority was required to demolish those units within five years. The following year the CHA initiated the Plan for Transformation. Approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2000, the stated goals of the plan are to renew the physical structure of CHA properties, promote self-sufficiency for public housing residents, de-concentrate poverty, and reform the administration of the CHA.

From the start, many CHA residents responded to the Plan for Transformation with skepticism and resistance. Tenant activists banded together to express concerns about their displacement, file lawsuits, and raise alarm about developers seizing coveted swaths of real estate for redevelopment and private profit. Current tenant activism has addressed the problem of wide-scale homelessness, voicing demands for the rehabilitation of empty buildings rather than their eradication. Organized protest has also resulted in the shelving of a 2011 plan for the mandatory drug testing of all renters in public housing.

As of 2013, the city’s ten-year project is now officially behind schedule, and the completion date has been extended to 2015. Rebuilding has not kept pace with demolition, and a great number of displaced families now find themselves in poor and underserved neighborhoods like Roseland and Englewood on the city’s South Side, using housing vouchers to rent privately owned homes, some more distressed and dangerous than their former CHA-maintained properties. In so many critical ways, place matters in Chicago. As Dr. Doriane Miller, University of Chicago professor and director of the Center for Community Health and Vitality puts it, “In Chicago one’s zip code is as determinative of one’s health outcomes as one’s DNA.”

As a result of the Plan for Transformation, city government has demolished or rebuilt twenty-five thousand public housing units and simultaneously relocated tens of thousands of people. And nothing is settled. For many outsiders, the disappeared buildings of Chicago public housing are too often considered in purely symbolic terms, with former residents easily categorized as troublemakers or victims. The truths of the matter belie such facile conclusions. The narrators of High Rise Stories describe the promise, the failure, and the success of the high rises. Their homes were once Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, ABLA Homes, Ogden Courts, and Rockwell Gardens. Some express their relief at having moved away. Others describe their fear of what comes next. Each and every one expresses the myriad ways they invested in their communities.

Most of the narrators in this book spent their early lives in public housing. Forty-seven-year-old Paula Hawkins describes the floor where she lived in Cabrini-Green as being filled with fellow playmates and a network of women who looked out for everyone. Summer days on the gated porch of that floor were spent together, sharing fun and games and homemade ice cream. “It was like a family reunion all the time,” Paula muses. Decades later, in recovery from substance abuse and with children and grandchildren of her own, Paula would be turned away from public housing because of her background. Chandra Bell, forty-one years old, also grew up in Cabrini. Like Paula, she treasures close relationships with neighbors who were “like family” and fun-filled activities at the neighborhood public library, but Chandra also grapples with the ways neighborhood violence marred her childhood. When she was twelve years old, Chandra saw a school classmate shot by a sniper. She and her family were friendly with the families of Dantrell Davis and Girl X, two children brutalized—Davis was killed—on the grounds of Cabrini-Green. Whereas Paula moved away from Cabrini-Green in the late seventies, Chandra came of age there in the eighties, as deindustrialization bottomed out jobs for many residents. As the drug economy boomed, gun violence became rampant. Chandra remembers that the front porch of her building was one of the safest places little children could gather. She also recounts an incident where a child in her building fell down an elevator shaft. Chandra now lives in a new mixed-income development (blueprinted by the Plan for Transformation) not far from where she grew up. While she enjoys many of the physical accommodations of her new address, she is aggrieved by the fact that her son, imprisoned on a drug conviction, is barred from ever visiting her home.

Eighty-three-year-old Dolores Wilson spent nearly her entire adult life in Cabrini-Green, raising a family with her husband, working for Water Works on Chicago’s Gold Coast, and becoming a community leader in the PTA and the Local Advisory Council for Cabrini. After fifty-three years in Cabrini, Dolores was hastily relocated to a public housing development south of the Loop. She has lost count of the valuables that she left behind.

Dolores, Chandra, and Paula are among the twelve former CHA residents in this book who reveal how they made their homes, and how, in the face of (and in spite of) direct and structural violence, they resisted, connected, survived, and how, sometimes, they even thrived. These narrators also remind us that the story of high rise public housing in Chicago continues to unfold. High Rise Stories speaks from the inside of “over there,” filling in the stories of unit after unit, floor after floor.

You are invited inside.

Excerpted from the Introduction of High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing with permission from the nonprofit publisher Voice of Witness and Audrey Petty.