- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

CHICAGO — The menacing row of concrete towers where four of Katie Sistrunk’s children were shot is almost all gone now, replaced by weeds and fields, mud and memories. One hollow-eyed lookout still paces at the entrance of the last high-rise, watching for police so he can alert drug dealers who lurk in the graffiti-scarred, darkened stairwells.

This is the end of the Robert Taylor Homes, the final days of what once was the nation’s largest housing project. Four decades ago, its 28 towers overflowed with thousands of some of the poorest people in America. Now there’s just one rotting building and a few dozen holdout tenants.

This month, the stragglers will leave, some reluctantly, a step ahead of the wrecking ball.

The rise and fall of Taylor is the story of a Great Society promise that became a debacle, of intimidating high-rises that became a national symbol of failure, of a community that, at times, became a war zone.

“It’s the end of an era,” says Beauty Turner, a resident for 16 years who became an activist and chronicler of public housing. “It’s the end of a community. You can say the people who made it through these buildings had the courage of a lion and the strength of an elephant. … But they had no say; they were voiceless.”

The obituary for the Taylor Homes might read this way:

Born in 1962. Welcomed by politicians with fanfare. Doomed by age 5. Ailing for decades. Dead at age 44. Among the causes: mismanagement, shrinking federal dollars, government blundering, neglect, poor design, drugs and, above all, too many poor people packed in to too little space. Survivors: tens of thousands.

Taylor has been coming down for the past decade, building by building, part of a nationwide movement to rid big cities of decaying, dangerous housing that warehoused the poor.

Nearly 186,000 public housing units have been approved for demolition in Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia and several other cities, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. About 80 percent already are gone.

The federal government also has allocated about $5.6 billion to refashion former public housing areas into smaller communities that combine families of different incomes.

But among big cities, Chicago’s public housing stands apart.

It has the most notorious history, with a seemingly endless list of tragedies. Just this May, a 21-year-old woman from California with bipolar disorder mysteriously plummeted from the seventh floor of Taylor’s last tower.

Along with the horrors are scandals and corruption that led to a four-year federal takeover of the Chicago Housing Authority in the 1990s.

“Chicago is the largest story of failure,” says D. Bradford Hunt, a Roosevelt University professor who is writing a book about the city’s public housing. “It created these enormous ghettos that were so cut off. … They really were islands in the city.”

The Taylor Homes — whose population was 99 percent black — was the grandaddy of them all, two miles of 16-story towers, more than 4,300 apartments shadowing the busy Dan Ryan Expressway. The Ryan was a dividing line — black to the east, white to the west.

Along with four other projects on the South Side, Taylor was part of a stretch once considered the highest concentration of poor people in America.

At its peak in the mid-1960s, Taylor swelled with 27,000 residents, three-fourths of them children. It was the children who got hurt playing in elevator shafts, the children who died in gang crossfire.

“I saw so many kids get killed … and I didn’t want that to happen to my child,” says Mrs. Sistrunk, who says four of her 13 children were shot at Taylor. “I called it little Beirut. Even if you could relax for a minute, it wouldn’t be nothing but a moment. You were never at a place where you could say, ‘Things are going to be fine.’”

Taylor became a city within a city, fueled by an underground economy. People sold everything from food to compact discs from their apartments. The big-ticket items, though, were heroin, crack, cocaine and marijuana sold by gangs who commandeered buildings. By one estimate, between $5,000 and $10,000 in drug money changed hands daily in the early 1990s — a time when nearly 96 percent of the residents, many single mothers, were jobless.

One tower was wryly dubbed “Freedom Town,” meaning every kind of drug was sold freely within its walls.

There’s no mystery now why Taylor failed.

“You just can’t stack poor people on poor people … where there are no jobs, the schools are failing, there’s no grocery store, no pharmacy, all the things you take for granted in a community,” says Terry Peterson, who recently stepped down as Chicago Housing Authority chairman.

But 44 years ago, the doors opened with great hope.

“This project represents … what all of us feel America should be — and that is a decent home for every family,” Mayor Richard J. Daley said at the dedication in 1962.

Even then, there were doubts.

Mr. Daley — father of the current mayor, Richard M. Daley — didn’t want high rises and had been warned they would be hard to manage and unwholesome for families. But voters who were the backbone of Mr. Daley’s political machine opposed public housing in their neighborhoods, empty land was scarce and the federal government balked at the high costs of low rises.

So Taylor was built. And every dire prediction came true.

From 1967 to 1974, the percentage of working-class families plummeted from 50 percent to 10 percent; those on public aid jumped from slightly more than a third to 83 percent. The vacancy rate rose. Empty apartments, many on the top floor, became drug dens. In the 1980s, the crack epidemic exploded. So did gang violence.

Mrs. Sistrunk, 53, came to Taylor a single teen mother and left a widow and great-grandmother. She says almost all her children ended up doing well and she doesn’t blame Taylor for those who got in trouble.

“It’s not where you live, it’s how you live,” she says. “They had another choice … because they had loving parents. We were always telling them about the drugs, about the gangs, about the guns. We didn’t have to tell them, they saw it.”

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