Robert Taylor Homes
Robert Taylor Homes

Robert Taylor Homes

Hood(s) Douglas; Washington Park; Grand Boulevard;

Pershing Road on the north, 54th Street on the south, State Street on the east, Federal Street on the west

Lifecycle 1959 – 1962, Construction; 1998 – 2006, Demolition;
Controlling gangs Gangster Disciples; Black Disciples; Mickey Cobras;

In the year 1959 there were big plans to build to largest public housing project in the world right here in Chicago.  These projects would stretch 2 miles in length cutting all the way through the Grand Boulevard neighborhood and stretching into the northern blocks of the Washington Park neighborhood.  These projects would consist of twenty eight buildings that were all 16 stories high a piece, having 4,415 units between them all, these projects would literally be able to house an entire decently sized town with a population between 10,000 to 30,000.  This was like a whole new isolated society was being built in the midst of the Bronzeville community.  The projects were named after Robert Rochon Taylor who was chairmen of the Chicago Housing Authority from 1939-1950.

Robert Taylor worked to integrate public housing projects into mixed race and mixed income neighborhoods to prevent racial segregation of the housing projects and avoiding a disadvantage for African Americans if the projects were built in slums. Taylor had a grand vision that would have worked; however, in 1950 Taylor was not listened to as a planning began to build public housing for African Americans in black ghettos causing Taylor to resign from his position in 1950, he later died in 1957.

Two years after Taylor’s death the new massive projects began construction in his name which is a major slap in the face for Robert Taylor’s name, now they used his name to make it look like these would be Robert Taylor approved projects, a great way to cover up a segregated housing plan, Robert Taylor was likely turning over in his grave.

These massive projects took until 1962 to complete because of their massive size; however, they were constructed poorly with cheap material which made this an ever bigger disaster waiting to happen.

The Robert Taylor projects started out as an ideal place to live for working class families in the earliest days between 1962 and 1965 as residents were able to open their doors to a nice outdoor area and converse with their neighbors in these breezeways.  The projects even had a security system that had a call box with a speaker in the lobby so only residents or authorized guests could come in.

The Egyptian Cobras (Mickey Cobras) became one of the first significant gangs to move into the projects as soon as the buildings opened in 1962.  The Cobras moved into the buildings near 45th and State/Federal then ventured southward in the 1960s.  The Cobras also moved into the cluster of three buildings in the Washington Park neighborhood at 53rd and State, these buildings were: 5326, 5323 and 5322 buildings.  The Del Vikings were another group that moved into the Robert Taylor buildings and developed a very strong presence.  By 1966, the Black Disciples began colonizing these buildings that rivaled the Cobras.

All hell began breaking loose in the year 1965 when elevators started breaking and gangs became increasingly violent spraying graffiti and inflicting injuries on each other and many others.  The kids in the gangs began throwing objects at each other from the breezeways that would strike other children and severely injure them, there was also a major increase in robberies and purse snatchings, especially since the neighborhoods surrounding the projects in Grand Boulevard and Washington Park had fallen into an extreme state of poverty and increased violence.

By 1969 issues only worsened when a nationwide law made residents only pay a percentage of their income for rent instead of a flat monthly rent rate for everyone, this allowed unemployed and barely employed residents with sketchy backgrounds the ability to move into these buildings, many of them had drug problems or gang affiliation.  The lack of tenant screening brought more transient drug users and drug dealers into the complex that did not live there that would often stay with the underclass income tenants temporarily or permanently.  On the other side of the coin, residents that made decent working class salaries had their rents raised which made many of them start to move out in large numbers causing vacant apartments and also more underclasses to move in, in place of them.  All this drain led to CHA not having the funding to make repairs since residents were living there almost rent free.

In the same year of 1969, the Egyptian Cobras, now known as the Cobrastones, cut into the Heroin trade after they directly connected with Italian organized crime.  The Cobrastones then brought a major Heroin trade to the 53rd and State Street buildings ran by the Cobrastones known as “The Hole.”  This became the first major drug operations in public housing units in Chicago history.  Soon the Heroin trade would extend to all the Robert Taylor homes as the 1970s progressed.

By 1972, the Robert Taylor projects became the site of hopelessness and despair while most other project complexes were sustaining better until later years.  The Robert Taylors went into a downward spiral very early in its existence as heroin took a powerful hold on these towers.  The Devil’s Disciples, Del Vikings and CobraStones now ran these buildings with an iron fist and had successfully pushed out smaller gangs for the most part.

Gang wars between the three organizations became increasingly murderous in the 1970s as they threw objects at rival members from on top of the high rises, but many times innocent children were struck down by these falling objects such as bottles, bricks, stones and even bicycles.  One child had his head crushed from a fallen object and when CHA did nothing the angry community showed up at the CHA office carrying the child’s small coffin to prove a point, this tragedy and the fact that Gang members chased each other through these hallways and often threw each other over the ledge; led to the installation of steel chain link fences that gave the residents a feel like they were prisoners or animals in a caged zoo on display.  The solution that was desired was to enclose the breezeways entirely, but that was too costly for CHA budget.

When gangs took over they dismantled the building’s buzz in security system by ripping out call boxes and cutting the wires, so that transient dealers and gang members had easy entry.

By 1975, CHA maintenance dramatically decreased as funding became harder to come by due to too many severely impoverished unemployed residents that could not pay much rent, rents were sometimes as cheap as under $50 a month even in the 1990s.

In the year 1981, there became a clear divide on the streets between Black Disciples and Black Gangster Disciples.  Mickey “Bull” Johnson of the Black Disciples made sure much of the Robert Taylor Disciples followed Black Disciple concepts and even the majority of the Del Vikings became Black Disciples that year.  The rest of the Del Vikings joined the Black Gangster Disciples when Robert “Cold Black” Dordies moved into these buildings and took the rest of the Disciples into the Black Gangster Disciples which ended up being the slight majority of the Disciples in these projects.  The Disciples north of 43rd Street became BGDs as BGDs would now control of all the buildings between Pershing Road and 43rd.

With the complete take over of the BGDs and the BDs in these towers in 1981, a major Heroin operation took over that was very organized.  Gangs set up security at the entrances to assure no police or outsiders came in to muscle in on their turf.

By the 1980s, drug and gang wars increased significantly as gang members now carried high powered and automatic weapons.  Vacant apartments became gang hideouts and crack dens for addicts.  The hallways and lobbies were littered with rotting trash and human and animal urine, feces and vomit.  Transient drug addicts slept in hallways and lobbies and had sexual intercourse in the stairwells where children would pass through.  Snipers took posts on roofs and upper level floors as they gunned at anyone they considered a threat to their drug operations or rival gang members; however, they too often struck innocent people and children.  School children were trained to hurry home while ducking on their way home from school to the projects in order not to be struck by sniper fire.  Gangs made rules for residents to abide by, as an example, in 1989  Robert “Cold Black” Dordies, the leader of the Gangster Disciples in 8 of the Robert Taylor buildings near 41st and Federal ordered all residents to be in their apartments by 10:00 P.M. or they would be shot and sure enough if they were caught in the lobby or the hallways they were gunned down, this was enforced because Dordies wanted full control of his lucrative drug trade even though he had not resided in Robert Taylor since the 1970s, regardless, he called the shots in those buildings and did until he was killed in 2001 outside the projects (Chicago Tribune Jorge Casuso and Robert Blau June 18, 1989).  Another example of control was in the Washington Park section of Robert Taylor in a cluster of three buildings at 53rd and State known as “The Hole.”  Here the Mickey Cobras ran these buildings and held their lucrative drug market, but as the smaller gang in the Robert Taylors they were under constant attacks from the Black Disciples and Gangster Disciples as gun fire was extremely high in these buildings.

The Hole was the most run down of all 28 project buildings in this complex, hence, why it was first for demolition in 1998.  The Mickey Cobras gang called it The Hole because they were like snakes in a hole and they decided if you came in or left, just like a hole.  Residents adapted the name because it was like a deep depressing slum hole that they could never get out of.  The Mickey Cobras marked these buildings by spray painting large 5 point stars to mark their territory.

The Robert Taylor projects experienced several sexual assaults and rapes over the years as women were often savagely beaten and attacked in stairwells and in the elevators.  The elevators barely functioned and would sometimes take ten minutes to arrive or would possibly never arrive.  When women would get into the elevators alone, predators could jump in through the top or pry doors open and push them in and rape them.

Stairwells were dark and full of addicts and human excrement like feces, vomit and urine from the many homeless drug addicts sleeping in these stairwells or waiting in the shadows to rob someone and sometimes beat or stab them to death.  The lobbies, hallways and outside were full of trash, drug needles and empty crack vials.  The buildings were very dark and full of several areas for criminals to hide when being pursued by police or if they wanted to rob or rape someone, the Chicago police referred to these criminals as “the clay people,” in reference to the Flash Gordon movie where the clay people would disappear into the walls (Chicago Tribune Bonita Brodt. Patrick Reardon and Jerry Thornton, December 3, 1986).

The elevators were constructed on the outside of the building in order to access the outdoor breezeways where residents lived and because of this, elevators would freeze in the winter time damaging gears, creating permanent damage to the elevators that were not designed to deal with Chicago winters.  In one 1972 article a reporter talked about his horrifying ordeal trapped alone in an elevator that malfunctioned for over a half hour going up and down from the 1st to the 16th floor without the doors opening or the elevator stopping.  The walls of the apartments were made of cheap dry wall that could easily be kicked out by burglars and by criminals trying to escape the police.  If residents lived next door to vacant apartment, they were fair game for criminals to kick their wall down and rob or rape them, since most of the projects consisted of single mothers with young children this was a very frightening reality.

Since the mid-1970s crime accelerated to an incredible amount in these projects and right around this time the gangs began moving thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs, the drug trade heavily increased in the 1980s as gang wars intensified; by the 1990s the gangs were pulling in a $45,000 a day drug trade in these buildings.  The severe deterioration accompanied by over 90% unemployment and severely high rates of crime led to the decision of the city to demolish these buildings starting in 1998.  The first three to be torn down were The Hole as these were in the worst condition.  As eviction was taking place in 1997-1998 the Mickey Cobras street gang fought their way north against the Disciples trying to take territory in those buildings to prevent their extinction in the Robert Taylors, the members also knew many of them would be relocated north so it was best to get an early start on gaining a foothold northbound, this led to a nasty slew of violence in the later 1990s as the first Robert Taylors were torn down.  A violent gang war continued all through the earlier 2000s decade until everyone was evacuated by 2005, and then in March of 2007 the last building was torn down.

A 1987 video documentary about life in the Robert Taylor Homes.  Crisis on Federal Street