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The Biggest Urban Renewal Flubs: Robert Taylor Homes

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In this special Curbed series, we're going to line up three nominees for biggest urban renewal flub , and on Thursday we'll put it to a readers' vote. It's hard not to be partisan in making our selections, but some criteria may help. Most of these standards should be met: 1) Significant fracturing of community 2) Social engineering gone wrong 3) Extreme concentrations of poverty and/or crime 4) Wasteful land use 5) Undemocratic planning process. Today's Pick: Robert Taylor Homes:


[Photo by flickr user Samuel A. Love/creative commons]

When the Robert Taylor Homes opened in 1962, it was, for a time, the largest public housing development in the country. With 28 identical 16-story buildings and 4,415 units, it was designed to house about 11,000 people. At its peak, it ended up with more like 27,000 residents. The scope of development was an utopian modernist's wet dream— the buildings were strung north to south for more than two miles! The site selection came out of clashes between the progressive-minded CHA and a reactionary City Council. Aldermen succeeded in planting Robert Taylor and many other projects firmly in the "black belt".

Over the years, Robert Taylor racked up dizzying statistics reflecting its poverty and dysfunction. At one point, 95% of its residents were unemployed. At another, six of the poorest U.S. census tracts with 2,500+ population were located in its housing blocks. Richard J. Daley, in a sense, drew a line between white Bridgeport and black Bronzeville when he built the Dan Ryan, further ensuring the severing of resources for residents of Robert Taylor. Also, the CHA was ill-equipped to manage and maintain such an enormous site. In the last decade, before the final stage of the long, slow demolition, structural conditions had deteriorated in the extreme and squatters took up residence, largely indistinguishable from legal tenants.
We all know Mr. T hails from Robert Taylor, and Deval Patrick too, but the most astonishing story of the Homes is that, despite its horrific image to the outside world, two-thirds of residents did not want to leave when the Plan for Transformation forced their relocation. This could have something to do with The Plan's failure to guarantee affordable replacement housing for all, and something to do with human attachment to place, whatever that place may be. In sum, Robert Taylor was at least as bad as Cabrini. But Cabrini had snipers and The Candyman, and enhanced infamy by fact of location— an island of poverty surrounded by white rich or on-their-way-to-being-rich neighborhoods. Lesson: Concentrating poverty anywhere is doomed to fail.
·Farewell to the high-rise [Metropolis]
·Robert Taylor Homes [Encyclopedia of Chicago]
·Midst the Handguns' Red Glare... [Whole Earth, 1999]
·What went wrong with public housing in Chicago? [State Historical Society]