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. Williamson learned to cope and discovered friendly neighbors who looked out for her and daughter Shaniqua. “They didn’t let nobody hurt you,” Williamson, 45, said of her neighbors. “Everybody knew everybody.”
Tenants walked children to school together, entered the building in groups and learned to fan out at the sight of huddled gangbangers. Williamson conditioned herself enough to redefine safety. Looking out of a high-rise window allowed a bird’s eye view of dangerous or illegal activity below. And, every day, she walked her grandchildren to the nearby Coleman Elementary, shielding them from corner drug dealers. “[You] didn’t too much have to worry about someone grabbing you. Somebody always watched you in Robert Taylor. I felt safer in the projects. Project people look out for each other.”
If a child played unattended on a floor, someone told. If a girl chatted with a boy too old for her own good, someone knocked on the grandmother’s door.
Two years ago, Williamson’s 4429 S. State St. residence, where she paid $60 a month, got torn down. Last fall, Williamson, with her daughter and four grandchildren, moved into a scattered-site housing unit blocks away. The new three-flat has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. For the first time, Williamson uses amenities like a dishwasher. “It’s a better neighborhood, not around a lot of drug dealers and shootings,” Williamson said, looking out of the front room’s picturesque window onto a manicured lawn.
“I saw carpet outside the hallways. I was trying not to breathe too hard,” she said of seeing the apartment for the first time.
But the move is bitter, too.
Williamson’s daughter, nicknamed Tweety, 29, was strangled in an alley in December—11 doors from their new place. Police discovered her body on New Year’s Eve; she hadn’t made it home from the night before. Police are still hunting down leads, Williamson said.
The mourning continues for Williamson as she laments the lack of protection that her daughter had. But family members try to celebrate Tweety’s life. On a Saturday in February, Williamson, along with aunts and cousins attended a community meeting, in part to press the police about Tweety’s murderer. Each family member wore a T-shirt that adorned Tweety’s picture and compelled the audience to sing a happy birthday tribute.
A few days later at her apartment, Williamson had on the same T-shirt. Birthday balloons sat untouched in the corner. She is raising her grandchildren and is happy that they live in a spacious apartment. But this cruel death twist leaves her smarting about leaving Robert Taylor and Tweety’s fate. “If I had stayed over there, she’d still be alive.”