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Economic mobility in Chicago’s projects

Sylvester Monroe Aug 17, 2012

Economic mobility in Chicago’s projects

Sylvester Monroe Aug 17, 2012

They’re nearly all gone now. Those towering concrete monuments to a flawed public housing experiment called the “projects.”  They had names like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Fort Greene in Brooklyn, Desire in New Orleans and Cabrini Green in Chicago. The social architects sold them as stepping stones to a better life for the mostly poor black people who inhabited them.  But decades after they were built in the years following the Second World War, they’ve been mostly blown up or bulldozed. And many of the people who once lived in high-rise public housing projects, and their children, are no better off than their parents were.  Some are even worse off.

When the Robert Taylor Homes opened in 1962, then Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley channeled the high hopes of a new urban generation.

“This project represents the future of a great city, it represents vision,” Daley said at the opening. “We know that this community needs a better environment in which the future generation of a great city will be raised.”

Construction on ‘Project Row’ in Chicago

That was my generation. I grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes inspired by the music of the civil rights movement:  The Impressions singing “Keep on Pushing,” James Brown shouting “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and Nina Simone’s stirring anthem, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” 

With a boost from a 1960s anti-poverty affirmative action program called A Better Chance, I lived Mayor Daley’s vision. I left the 99 percent black Wendell Phillips High School and graduated from a mostly white New England prep school called St. George’s in Newport, Rhode Island. That was my ticket to Harvard and a career as a news magazine correspondent. 

Ghetto Sprawl

Most of my friends and neighbors from the projects never got to see Daley’s vision. What the mayor did not say, but everyone knew about Chicago, is that “Chitown” was the most segregated city in America. Daley used to brag that Chicago was a city of ethnic neighborhoods. We he meant was that everyone should stay in their own neighborhood.

Mine was a two-block by two-and-a-half mile enclave of 28 sixteen-story skyscrapers on the city’s predominantly black South Side, ten apartments on each floor. At its peak, the Taylor Homes housed some 27,000 people—all poor and all black. Most of them rarely left except for the occasional trip downtown, which, for many of us, stood in the distance like an ephemeral Emerald City of Oz.

My family moved to the Robert Taylor Homes from a rat-infested tenement when I was 11. As a young boy, I could lie in the bedroom of our 12th floor apartment and hear the geographic isolation. We were boxed in: the relentless white noise of the Dan Ryan Expressway traffic and the roar of freight trains on the western border of the projects. On the other side, you could hear the regular passings of  “L” (elevated rapid transit) trains. And though we could not hear the waves of Lake Michigan, from the higher floors we could see the natural boundary it created to the east.

To the north, project buildings lined up all the way to Cermak Road, the unofficial line of demarcation between the South Side ghetto and downtown Chicago. And to the south, miles of seemingly endless ghetto sprawl.

 The Pride of the Hood

Being back there on “Project Row” for the 25th anniversary picnic of former residents of the first building of the Robert Taylor Homes, summoned a flood of memories—good and bad. The site of my old building, 3919 S. Federal Street, aka “Trey-nine,” is now a grassy vacant lot. But all around it now, there are bright new townhouse apartments and condos, some costing as much as a half million dollars.

About a hundred former residents came out to catch up with old friends

I still am not used to seeing young white women jogging or walking their dogs where once even angels feared to tread. For a Saturday afternoon, it actually looked kind of barren and lifeless compared to the hustle and bustle of the project Saturdays I remember. The delightful screams of children on monkey bars and merry-go- rounds in the “little kids’ playground.” The smack-talking of ballers on the basketball courts, music blaring from open cars and the sultry sisters in big hair rollers and fuzzy slippers scurrying  between the building and the shopping center across the street on last minute errands before stepping out on Saturday night.

My old friends always make a fuss when I come back because I got out and moved up. There’s a certain neighborhood pride that goes along with that. When I went back 25 years ago to do a Newsweek cover story on some of the guys I grew up with, one of them, Edward “Halfman” Carter, told my editor that my success was their success. “It shows what black kids from the projects are capable of,” he said.

But most black men born in poverty, then and now, stay there. They exist in what the pundits used to call the permanent underclass. Some manage to climb up onto the next rung of upward mobility to working poor. But black men like me who start at the bottom and “make it” to the top? We’re still the exception.


Tommy Hamilton is the younger brother of one of the friends I wrote about in the Newsweek story. He was still a kid when I left the projects. He helped organize this year’s picnic.

“It brings joy to my heart to see three and four generations down here,” he said, as he warmly welcomed me and Marketplace producer Jolie Puidokas to the festivities.

It’s not at all uncommon for three or four generations to grow up in the same housing project. They don’t move up or out until they’re forced out when the buildings get demolished. The last of the Robert Taylor high rises came down in 2007.

Some wealthy individuals say a higher estate tax is fair, but others are fighting against proposed changes.

Brand new townhouses on the site of the Robert Taylor Homes

Cabrini-Green, the Ickes, Ida B. Wells, Stateway Gardens. They’ve all come down, too. And the people who lived there are often just shuffled to the next bad neighborhood. That’s not mobility, according to Hamilton.

“When they tore down these buildings, the ones who got displaced, they probably just took their project mentality with them to other neighborhoods,” said Tommy.

Moving Out, Not Up

Annie Ricks was the last tenant out of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s north side. And she’s one of the newest transplanted residents in the Wentworth Gardens project across the expressway from where Trey-nine used to be. Wentworth is one of the few remaining housing projects in Chicago, a low-rise development of row houses a few blocks south of U.S. Cellular Field (formerly Comiskey Park) where the White Sox play.

Ricks was not happy when she was forced out of Cabrini-Green nearly two years ago. She lived there for 22 years, and she did not want to move to Wentworth Gardens.

 “I want to go to Archer Court, like on 23rd and Canal,” says the 56-year old mother of 13 children.

Her “dream home” at Archer Court is a slightly bigger Section 8 apartment in a slightly better neighborhood. It’s hard to think big when your whole life has been circumscribed by race, poverty and geographical isolation. Which is why, when I asked Ricks if she thinks her kids are doing better than she did, she said yes, they’re moving up.

“Some of my older sons, they work at Wal-mart,” she says proudly. “Rosie, she is going back to school and she is going to get her high school diploma because when she got pregnant, she dropped out.”

The Next Generation

Just outside Ricks’ apartment, a group of teenagers and young men dressed in standard street garb, white t-shirts and dark baggy pants, were drinking beers and chilling on some playground equipment. We asked a few of them what they wanted to do with their lives, what they wanted to be. One by one, they  answered with a saddening uncertainty.

“I don’t know.”

“I’m working on it.”

“I don’t really know right now.”

“I go to school.”

“I’m hoping for the best, but I don’t know what I’m going to do yet.”

Professor Alford Young studies urban economic mobility at the University of Michigan. He says too often for young people in the projects getting ahead is just an abstract idea. They don’t see the connection between education and economic mobility often enough to know that it’s a real option.

“I get the same stories from young men,” Young says. “’I wanna go into sports, I wanna go into entertainment.’ The only vision of someone who’s come from their neighborhoods, or neighborhoods like theirs, and have achieved success have been athletes or entertainers.”

Wasted Opportunities

And you’ve got to be lucky — like, lottery lucky — to find that path out of the projects. But in another way, luck in the hood is no different than luck anywhere else. It’s the intersection between preparation and opportunity. In the hood, I was a lucky dude. So was my oldest friend, Steve Steward.

Steve Steward outside his new apartment on the far South Side of Chicago

He got a scholarship to prep school just like me. But the pull of the projects can be strong. Drawn back to the security of home, Steve dropped out of Northwestern University halfway through his junior year. Now he moves, from one hood to the next, gentrification hot on his heels. He likens the movement of project people to the reservation system and Native Americans.

“The Indians were here at this place, and now they have to be replaced because you need their place,” he says. “When you take away someone’s residence and say, ‘You have to go here,’ you hope it’s for the better. But they got the worse situations.”

 Steve has been moved from one project to another and from the projects to one Section 8 flat to another. His newest home is in a hood called “Terror Town” on the far South Side.

Steve had a chance. And he blew it. But he says no one should really be surprised.

“You follow your people’s footsteps,” he said.”If your daddy’s a lawyer, you might want to become a lawyer. If he’s a doctor, you might want to do that because Doc comes in and lets you know that this is a nice profession. This is what you want to have. But if you’re poor, you’re used to poverty.”

Obstacles and Hurdles

Standing in front of Steve’s new place, we met one of his neighbors on the street.

“So if I look out this window, will I be amazed by what I see going by me every day?” Steve asked.

“Yeah, it erupts,” said the neighbor, who goes by Slim.

“How often do you hear gunshots?” Steve asked.

“I heard gunshots yesterday,” Slim replied.

Charles “Slim” Ross grew up in the projects too. He’s in his thirties now, and it turns out he’s from the same neighborhood where Steve and I lived as young boys. He’s the next generation of men raised in the projects after me and Steve. But Slim says growing up in the projects is no reason to just give up.

“Yeah I stay in this neighborhood,” he said. “But Chicago is a big city, and there’s opportunity all over.

Opportunity for Slim means taking the bus out of his neighborhood — four hours round trip sometimes — to work in a fast food place.

“I don’t stay in the city and say, ‘Nothing for me and all the jobs are gone,’’ he said in a mocking whine. “If you go out and get it, it’s there for you. But if you say, ‘I’m stuck here with nothing,’ then that’s what you’re going to get.”

People in the projects can tell you all about what nothing means. But when it comes to something, they get hung up.

And that’s the hurdle for guys who grow up like Slim, like me, and like the boys at Wentworth Gardens. It’s being able to see that beyond the long odds of life in the hood, there’s a world of possibility.

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