The Root Cities: Chicago Then and Now

A scene from 1970s Bronzeville, near the Robert Taylor Homes (Getty Images)
A scene from 1970s Bronzeville, near the Robert Taylor Homes (Getty Images)

The Second City, the City of Broad Shoulders and the City That Works was Frank Sinatra's "kind of town." It is also my hometown.

I came here with my mother when I was about 6 months old. Like countless thousands of others from the deep South in the late 1940s and early 1950s, we took the Illinois Central from Greenville, Miss., north through Memphis to the Windy City in search of the so-called promised land.

Back then, it was a place where a strong back and a willingness to work hard were all a black man or woman needed to make a much better living toiling in one of the city's many booming factories. It certainly beat sharecropping on a Mississippi plantation. My mother's oldest brother had migrated North right after World War II and landed a job at a candy factory, where he worked until he retired nearly 40 years later.


Years later, my mother would tell me how awed she was at her first sight of Chicago's sparkling, big-city lights and tall buildings when we emerged from Union Station in downtown Chicago. She was not quite 19 years old at the time. We settled in a drafty, vermin-infested tenement with my uncle on the city's predominantly black Near South Side, mere blocks from the shores of Lake Michigan. The area is now part of a historic-landmark section of the city known as Bronzeville.

My mother's fascination with Chicago's bright lights soon faded as she quickly began to face the realities of life in what was then one of the most, if not the most, racially segregated cities in the country. Getting a job was not as easy as she had thought; once she found work, she was always paid less than whites doing the same job. Displaced by so-called urban renewal, we moved from one tenement to another, but always in the same general area.

When I was about 12, we were accepted into a new high-rise public housing complex called the Robert Taylor Homes. The Taylor Homes were 28 red-and-white concrete buildings — 16 stories high, with 10 apartments on each floor — that stretched for 2½ miles along South State Street, which divided Chicago east and west. They opened to much fanfare in 1962. It was the largest public housing project in the U.S., with more than 27,000 residents, nearly all of them black, and all poor. And that was no accident.

"Chicago is a great city," the late Mayor Richard J. Daley was fond of saying. "It's a city of great neighborhoods." What he did not say, but what everyone who lived in the city understood, was that you were supposed to stay in your own neighborhood, especially if you were poor.


The Robert Taylor Homes were strategically located and designed to keep the masses of poor black people on the South Side of Chicago in one isolated, though beautiful, location. From our 12th-floor apartment in the first building, we had a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan to the east; the majestic skyline of downtown Chicago to the north; the magnificent, recently constructed 12-lane Dan Ryan Expressway to the west; and the remaining Taylor Homes towers and more black ghetto to the south.

Though we could look across the expressway into all-white Bridgeport, where Mayor Daley lived, when I was a boy we could not go there unless it was to a baseball game at Comiskey Park (now U.S. Cellular Field), where the Chicago White Sox played. When the game was over, especially a night game, we had to go straight back across the expressway or face Bridgeport's unwelcoming, largely Irish Catholic residents.


Mike Royko, the iconic Chicago newspaper columnist, once wrote what he swore was the true story of a black couple's unfortunate visit to the home of a white Bridgeport family. While the couple was still inside, a group of neighborhood residents knocked on the door and ordered the family to tell the "niggers" to leave.

Despite much of the Taylor Homes' infamous history, our four-bedroom apartment was the best place we had ever lived in; it was clean, vermin-free and, what I loved most, never cold. Though our lives were circumscribed by race, poverty and cultural isolation, it was home. There were manicured lawns, playgrounds and basketball courts. A small shopping center with a grocery store was right across the street.


The parks along Lake Shore Drive and 31st Street Beach were a short bicycle ride away. We played Little League baseball in the parks and tackle football without pads in the grassy median on South Park Boulevard, which was later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard.

There were neighborhood movie theaters where we watched first-run films after church every Sunday. And the famed Regal Theater, on the corner of 47th and South Park, had live stage shows every week, where we could see the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes and Ray Charles, among many others, for $1.25.


When money permitted, an excursion to the downtown department stores or the Field Museum of Natural History and the Shedd Aquarium was always a special treat. The Loop, including Chicago's Grant Park, was everybody's neighborhood. It was the one place in the city where, regardless of what neighborhood you were from, all Chicagoans at least tolerated one another.

But life in Chicago's black South Side changed as upwardly mobile, working-class families began to move out of the projects into the classic Chicago bungalows further south. By my sophomore year in college, my mother had saved enough for my brother, five sisters and me to move out, too.


I left Chicago to go to boarding school, then college and then a job in Boston. After nearly 10 years away, I returned in 1976 with a family of my own. I lived in an upscale, high-rise complex on the lakefront, just blocks from where my family had originally settled. I stayed for nearly six years before returning to Boston. By that time, Harold Washington had been elected the city's first African-American mayor. It would be 23 years before I returned to live in the city again.

When I did, in 2006, I returned to a kinder, gentler Chicago, a world-class city with an even more impressive downtown skyline that now boasted three of the tallest buildings in the world, a marvelous new downtown attraction called Millennium Park and billions of dollars in new development in the South Loop. And helming the city was Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, the son of the powerful Democratic Party boss and kingmaker who, it was said, had been responsible for the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Irish Catholic president of the United States in 1960. 


I had originally planned to return to my beloved Bronzeville, where many of the old tenements had been replaced by or rehabbed into expensive brownstones and town houses. But I'd always dreamed of living in downtown Chicago, so instead I moved into an integrated South Loop high-rise with Grant Park and the lakefront as my backyard.

I was two blocks from work and within walking distance of the Chicago Symphony, Soldier Field, the Art Institute, and a long list of great neighborhood restaurants and shops. The Robert Taylor Homes and most of the four miles of housing projects along State Street were gone, replaced by $500,000 condos and townhouses.


And much to my surprise, I saw not only black people walking freely in and out of Bridgeport, but white people walking their dogs along the once all-black mean streets of "project row." Amazing progress! Indeed, Chicago would eventually give the nation its first African-American president.

And yet, I couldn't help wondering what had happened to all of those poor black people who had once lived there. They'd simply been pushed out into the remaining South Side ghetto and even poorer far-south suburbs, where gangs, drugs and violence still punctuated their lives. And I thought to myself, the more things change, the more some things remain the same.


Sylvester Monroe is a writer who grew up in the city's now-razed Robert Taylor Homes, once the largest public housing project in the U.S. He is co-author, with Peter Goldman, of the best-selling book Brothers: Black and Poor: A True Story of Courage and Survival, about 11 of his boyhood friends in the projects.

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