"Were Taylor alive today, he would strenuously disavow the association of his name with a Jim-Crow housing project." - Chicago Defender April 16, 1959

Described by Aaron Modica as "national symbols of the failure of urban policy," Robert Taylor Homes were once the largest and most infamous public housing project in America. Part of a post-war slum-clearing initiative, Robert Taylor Homes were advertised as progressive solutions to urban poverty. But as Devereux Bowly Jr remarks in the 1987 documentary "Crisis on Federal Street," the projects actually represent "an attempt by the city government ... to constrain the Black population of the city at that time to the smallest geographic area."

The project is named after Chicago activist Robert Rochon Taylor, a man who, according to the Chicago Defender, "saw in this social experiment [public housing] an enduring hope for the eventual full flowering of democratic living in all its true connotations." Before he became the Chicago Housing Authority's first Black member (and later chairman under Director Elizabeth Wood), Taylor helped found the Illinois Federal Savings and Loan bank in order to help Black Chicagoans attain mortgages in spite of redlining. Taylor truly saw the potential for good in CHA projects and Hal Baron describes him as "one of the leading black champions of public housing." In his article, "Building Babylon: Racial Controls in Public Housing," Baron explains Taylor's struggles to convince an unreceptive CHA to use public housing as a means of urban renewal, to build permanent housing at strategic locations:

"To little avail, Chairman Taylor had argued that the slum clearance objectives of the City's housing program were imperiled because "a private program for rebuilding the slums could not proceed unless there were low rent houses into which displaced low-income families could move." He tried to make the case that existing plans called for the demolition of 10,600 dwelling units for highways and clearance surrounding medical and education institutions. The construction of public housing on occupied slum sites would add to this dislocation rather than relieve it. Despite the excellent logic of its position, CHA came to find out that its sweeping plans for new public housing were not very firmly hitched to the wagon of urban renewal."

The deeply racist process of site approval in Chicago caused Taylor's integrated project proposals to fail and led to his resignation from CHA in 1954. According to Bowley, the subsequent firing of Elizabeth Wood and mayoral election of Richard Daley mark "the end of an almost twenty-year period where public housing was viewed as a vehicle for social change." Robert Taylor Homes was one of the first public housing projects approved by Mayor Daley.

Outrageously overcrowded and chronically underfunded, the project soon descended into notoriety. Only three years after its construction, accounts of life in Robert Taylor horrified readers of the Chicago Daily News. The project contained 4,300 soon-dilapidated housing units, 3 rival gangs who frequently killed children, 27,000 inhabitants (95% of whom were unemployed), and despairing residents who bought and sold an estimated $45,000 worth of drugs (predominantly heroin) per day. Conditions at Robert Taylor Homes reminded Baron painfully of local units of colonial administrations, particularly the Bantu reservations in South Africa. Writing in 1971, Baron explained that:

“the tenants of Robert Taylor have never been able to form any effective grass roots organizations to represent themselves. Black militants, independent political aspirants and civil rights groups have all tried and failed so far. At this stage, none of these groups is strong enough to offer any protection, and the tenants correctly assess their personal positions as being very vulnerable.”

While the last of the Robert Taylor towers were demolished in 2005, the CHA continues to plague its former residents. Apparently, two of the forty-six times that the word 'permanent' appears in the CHA relocation contract define the phrase 'permanent housing' as not intended to mean the resident's permanent housing. In March of 2019, former Robert Taylor resident Kelly King received notice from the CHA giving her 4 months in which to move out of the so-called 'permanent housing' unit provided to her 20 years earlier. When Chicago CBSN joined the fray, the Housing Authority allowed King to relocate to a different unit within her same building.

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  1. Modica, Aaron. "Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago, Illinois (1959-2005)." Black Past.org, 12-19-2009. Available Online.
  2. “Crisis On Federal Street (1987) - PBS Documentary on the failed Chicago Housing Projects.” Daily Blocks Video, 56:20. Available Online.
  3. "The Robert R. Taylor Homes." 1959. Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Apr 16, 13.
  4. “Robert Rochon Taylor.” Wikipedia. Last edited 9-11-2020. (1956-1960), Apr 16, 13.
  5. Baron, Harold M. "Building Babylon; a Case of Racial Controls in Public Housing." Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University, Center for Urban Affairs, 1971. A synopsis is available online.
  6. Baron, "Building Babylon," 1971.
  7. Baron, "Building Babylon," 1971.
  8. Bowly, Devereaux Jr. The Poor House. Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.
  9. Hunt, D. Bradford. "What Went Wrong with Public Housing in Chicago? A History of the Robert Taylor Homes." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) 94, no. 1 (2001): 96-123. Accessed October 30, 2020. Available Online.
  10. "Robert Taylor Homes," World Heritage Encyclopedia, digitized by Project Gutenberg, accessed 10-24-20. Available Online.
  11. Baron, "Building Babylon," 1971.
  12. Baron, "Building Babylon," 1971.
  13. Gerasole, Vince. “She Left Robert Taylor Homes for ‘Permanent’ Residence; Now CHA Says she has to Move.” Chicago CBSN, 3-19-2019.' Available Online.
  14. Gerasole, "She Left Robert Taylor," 2019.