Lacking hope, a family looks for home

When completed in 1962, the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago's Grand Boulevard neighborhood became the largest single public-housing project in the United States. The government's goal was to turn one of Chicago's worse slums into a sanitized, family-friendly community.

The project failed. Within 40 years of putting up the Robert Taylor buildings, officials were tearing them down, trying to drive out gangs that came to control the project. Not a single of the project's 28 high-rises stands today, and by pushing out criminals, the government also drove out thousands of families, leaving many to fend for themselves with little more than housing vouchers.

Their struggle is the subject of a new play by Chicago playwright Nambi E. Kelley, who takes a microscopic view of the exodus by chronicling a fictitious family's struggle as it waits for a new housing assignment in a South Side Chicago motel.

"It's about whether the environment that you live in penetrates a place in your soul and changes the way that you live your life," Kelley says. "What happens in the in-between space? What happens between getting moved out of Robert Taylor and waiting for your new apartment?"

Violence, tragically, is Kelley's answer. In "Hope VI," staged tonight by the Chicago Dramatists, 6-year-old Hope Graves becomes the target of escalating attacks from family members, frustrated and cooped up in a single motel room. The play is named for the federal program that authorized the Robert Taylor demolition.

Kelley says the example of a family waiting in a motel may not be typical for former Robert Taylor residents, but that she used it to showcase the varying generations of people displaced from the housing project — Hope, her newborn siblings, her parents and a grandmother figure, the aging matriarch who longs for a return to her nostalgic vision of Robert Taylor.

"She's very depressed by the fact that the community is being destroyed by the wrecking ball," Kelley says. "There's a thread about the loss of community, and what that means specifically for African-Americans in this country who are trying to find home."

Roosevelt University Associate Dean Brad Hunt examines the Robert Taylor debacle in his upcoming book "Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing."

Hunt says sociologists are split on whether dismantling the project was inevitable, rather than the result of efforts to make predominantly black poor people conform to white, middle-class behavior. But from the start, he says, officials involved in the Robert Taylor project failed to plan for a sustainable community.

While Chicago officials, including then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, pushed for more accessible, low-rise buildings, federal administrators sought to lower costs by stacking more families on top of each other in 16-story structures. In their attempt to house large, low-income families, they built most apartments in the buildings with three, four and five bedrooms.

The result was about two miles of tall buildings, packed with children and few adults.

"It was loud. Things were flying off the balconies," Hunt says. "Kids were playing in the elevators. Kids were running through the hallways."

Hunt says it would have been easier to supervise those children in low-rises, where adults could spot mischief from the ground level. But the combination of higher, less visible floors and the high number of youngsters created chaos.

By the 1970s, the biggest problems were financial, he says. Families had trouble paying rent, and the Chicago Housing Authority could not maintain the properties even with federal operating subsidies. It was a matter of time before the Robert Taylor Homes became, in Hunt's words, "a government-sponsored slum."

"I don't know how any government could tolerate such dysfunctional buildings," he says. "Had these been privately owned buildings, they would have been shuttered and condemned as uninhabitable based on code violations by the 1980s, certainly by the 1990s."

Officials started destroying the building in the late '90s. Kelley's play takes place in 2007, just after Hope Graves and her family leave the last of the Robert Taylor buildings. There were preliminary plans to create a mixed-income community over the site, but the land remains vacant.

"Hope VI" starts at 8 p.m. at 1105 W. Chicago Ave., and it runs through July 12. Proceeds will help benefit the future National Public Housing Museum in Chicago. For ticket information, call 312-633-0630.

Staff Writer Adrian G. Uribarri can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 12, or adrian at chitowndailynews dot org.