Kelly Smith never had a dishwasher or clothes dryer. She stands on the balcony she never had and lets the quiet bathe her. “You can hear birds chirping and singing,” said the 29-year-old. “That’s a good thing to hear instead of all that pow-pow-pow, ducking and dodging bullets.” What she may not have bargained for is the dissonance resonating between former public housing residents like herself and residents of the mixed-income neighborhood that she moved into.
In 1967, Barbara Moore moved into a high-rise building at 5266 S. State St., in the Robert Taylor Homes, with her two young sons. The new two-bedroom apartment was a step up from their old, rickety kitchenette a few miles away. Many black families like Moore’s were crowded into these one-room dwellings. At their worst, the kitchenettes were run-down units, fire-gutted buildings and crumbling facades. Many of the dwellings were torn down on the same swath of land where the Taylor Homes opened in 1962.
The name Robert Taylor has long been associated with Chicago public housing. But, before the notorious housing complex opened, Robert Taylor, the man, was known otherwise. As the first black commissioner of the Chicago Housing Authority who elevated to chairperson of the board during the 1940s, Taylor believed in racially integrated housing for poor people. “Poor people deserve decent housing,” daughter Barbara Bowman recalled her father telling her as a child. “You could help them.
Regina Williamson was scared to death when she moved into the Robert Taylor Homes in the early 1990s. Its sully reputation bothered her. But Williamson longed to leave her mother’s house for her own place. When she went to the Chicago Housing Authority for an apartment, she got placed in Taylor. Gangs ran amok, people got drugs on credit and gunfire often echoed outside.
On a sweltering Sunday in July, the air-conditioned sanctuary echoed with foot stomping and hand clapping. It was a typical Sunday for worshippers at this Baptist church on Chicago’s West Side: singing, sermons and praise dancing. But the pastor took the service on a tangent. “Our children deserve the highest quality education,” piped the Rev. Marshall E. Hatch Sr. of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. “Amen,” the church responded.