Way back in the day, when no one ever would’ve thought that Marshall Field’s or the Sears Tower would change their names, all 28 of the Robert Taylor Homes buildings marched up and down State Street from 39th to 54th. The housing project’s high-rises shot up into the air, 16 stories, looming over apartment buildings, schools, and police stations.
If you zipped down the Dan Ryan, the buildings would be there, their windows, like millions of eyes, watching. If you hopped on the 29 bus at Navy Pier and fell asleep, you’d wake up and find yourself on a ghetto tour—building after building, masses of people. A sharper eye would catch drug transactions disguised as handshakes, pistols bulging under crumpled white tees, and naked lust for an entrance into this criminal world emanating from little boys whose mamas bought them shoes from Payless. Some people hungered to get out, but it was difficult to escape the Robert Taylor Homes.
The buildings were off-white and rust-colored in chunks. You’d see a few blocks of red buildings, then white, then red, then white, then red—and it would go on like that. We talked about the buildings in colors: “She in the white building across from the Currency Exchange” or “They stay in one of them red buildings on 47th.” Gangs divided up the buildings. On one city block you could have two different gangs. I lived in 4950, a building that was Folks, and just across the playground, in 4946, were the BDs. Both buildings red, but led by two different philosophies. For this reason, there was no playing in the playground that sat right between these rival gangs. People tried not to walk through it because, at any moment, it could become a battlefield. If you heard that the block was in war, you stayed in the house, crouched in a hallway, on the floor, where you wouldn’t catch a bullet meant for somebody else.
My building was sandwiched between DuSable High School and the tracks that the Metra and freight trains rolled on. This was the real playground for kids; they couldn’t resist climbing the mountain that led to the tracks and all the overgrown greenery up there. The buildings had two openings: you could come in through the playground and be right by the elevator, or enter through the opposite side, closer to the parking lot. My friends and I used the parking-lot side because it was closer to our school, stores, and the candy truck.
When you entered that way, you had to go through “the breezeway.” We called it that because, for some reason, there was always a strong blast of wind in the tunnel, whipping around trash tornadoes and blowing weed smoke in your face. That’s where the mailboxes were, where people got their “aid” checks on the first of the month or grabbed their ComEd bills. You could count on walking through a Soul Train line of dudes, watching for both sport and security. Some of them had a real job to do, looking out for strange people who didn’t belong, like undercover police, so that if they yelled, those within earshot who were up to no good could scatter. If you were a kid, you knew to get out of the way or you’d be knocked over, maybe even shot. There was a system to everything, and even if you didn’t have all the details about what was happening, you understood enough, and it kept you alive.
The demolition on my block started the summer that I turned 12. My best friend Stacia and her family had just moved into 4950 the year before. I didn’t know right away, but they moved from a project building on 39th because the Chicago Housing Authority had decided that her family wasn’t “lease compliant.” That meant they didn’t meet the requirements to move to a better place. If your kids were in and out of jail or known gangbangers, you wouldn’t be lease compliant. If you were months behind on one of your utility bills or didn’t pay your rent consistently, you got shuffled around the remaining projects, because only lease-compliant families got what the CHA was advertising on TV and bus ads: “CHAnge.”
Every time a building was demolished, they would move the Buchanans to another project building. The Buchanans were big-time drug dealers and high-ranking officials with the GDs, part of the Folks Nation. The matriarch, Gail, chose 4950 because her sons needed to clique in with the same gang so that their safety, rank, and cash flow would be guaranteed.
There were families like the Buchanans all over Robert Taylor, big families who came in all shapes, sizes, and colors, but with the same eyes or noses or heads. The Buchanans had these heads shaped like peanuts, and squinty eyes with a face of many folds that made them look a little like bulldogs. Gail had 14 kids. Two of them were serving time in the penitentiary, one, whose name I can’t remember, in the Audy Home, the juvenile jail, and another, Ed, who got out of the family business and lived with his wife and kids in Hammond, Indiana. The other ten lived in 1502, a four-bedroom apartment.
My other best friend at the time was Precious, a spoiled church girl whose mama had grown up with mine. Precious, Stacia, and I were a weird trio for a few years. I was with them the day the city started tearing down our neighborhood. Our teacher let us go for the day, and we sprinted out the doors and saw this big crowd at the end of the block. We didn’t have the walk signal at the intersection, so we stood there, looking. Well, Precious and I stood and waited, but Stacia was jumping up and down, sometimes bumping into the crossing guards. Precious stood calmly, like she was royalty or someone anticipating paparazzi. When the light turned green, the pack of kids we were in began rushing across the street. Precious dragged behind, her book bag knocking against her because she carried too many things: stuff for her hair and stuff for her skin and extra snacks and Band-Aids and books to read in the morning before school started and books to read at lunchtime (because sometimes she’d just check out on us) and a change of shoes. She was so extra.
I couldn’t believe that our buildings were coming down. I thought Robert Taylor would always exist. My grandma moved in a year after they opened, in 1963. My grandfather had been abusive. So one day grandma left. Once grandpa had gone off to work, the moving men arrived, loaded up the apartment, and drove all of her things over to the Taylor Homes. I grew up in the same apartment that she fled to, and there was so much of her that remained: an end table made of wood and marble, an enormous TV that sat on the floor, her sewing machine, the hot comb that straightened or curled mama’s and Auntie Nora’s hair every week. Mostly, it was our family’s southern traditions that kept her memory alive.
On Sundays she’d do her daughters’ hair in the kitchen. Every Friday she’d get up and cook a big dinner of collard greens, red beans, corn bread, macaroni and cheese, and desserts that would last for days. These dishes took hours to make, and you’d hang out in the kitchen and living room smelling them while you sang and made fun of one another. Then you’d sit at the kitchen table and enjoy the feast as a family. Even as the neighborhood started to deteriorate, I think it was hard for us to shake the memory of what Robert Taylor did for our family.
When Precious, Stacia, and I finally got up to where people had gathered to watch the demolition, I thought about how the crowd, for once, wasn’t there for a fight. I saw Mr. Muhammad from the Food & Liquors and Ms. Rose who ran the candy truck. There were a bunch of gangbangers, crackheads, and little old ladies. Even Mama Pearl was there. It was rare to catch Mama Pearl outside. She didn’t trust the neighborhood anymore. But on that day she’d crawled out of hiding, and stood there with everyone else, letting herself forget the terrible things she’d seen some of these people do to one another.
She’d watched cute kids grow up to become fiends or drink and drug themselves to death. She’d watched descendants of her old friends ruin their families’ names. For Mama Pearl, it wasn’t just about the loss of bricks and iron. What had already broken her heart was the demolition of so many families over the years.
Everybody was looking at the little ball swinging from a wire cord; it seemed too thin. Some people watched wordlessly. Other people couldn’t shut up. Two winos were talking when we got there.
“Didn’t I tell you?” one asked. “I told you they was gon’ knock ’em all down. Goddamn Mayor Daley!”
“Papa Daley put ’em up,” his friend replied, taking a swig from a crumpled paper bag, “Junior knocked ’em down.”
“This don’t make no damn sense! They just gon’ put us out?” a lady said.
A man snapped his head in her direction. “Yo’ ass going right down the street to another building. You know you ain’t lease compliant.”
Later that day I’d get mad at mama because she had a chance to calm my fear and anxiety about our future—Were we lease compliant? Would we have to move to a building where we didn’t know the unwritten rules?—but she wouldn’t talk about it.
While in the crowd, I overheard a kid ask, “Why come they tearin’ up that building?” He was too little to be outside by himself, but kids did what they wanted in my neighborhood. Day-Day, a gang leader on my block, looked over at him and said, like he was passing on age-old wisdom, “‘Cause white people want to be closer to they jobs, lil’ man.” That set off the crowd.
“Ain’t that some shit? Like we don’t get no say?” a lady said, her hand on her hip.
Mama Pearl started to walk off, but then she stopped and looked back at the wrecking ball. Her weary eyes found mine, and I saw that her soft, reflective face was gone, replaced by the stern one the one that kept us kids in line.
Before her hair turned white from stress or horror or just old age (she was 72), Mama Pearl, whose real name is Lucille Perkins, worked with my grandma, Mabel Stevens, at the White Cake and Candy Company in Jackson, Mississippi. Mama Pearl had plump fingers with wide nails, so I couldn’t imagine them wrapping foils over truffles. (I learned over the years not to be surprised by anything this woman could do.) Though they were surrounded by the scent of butter and chocolate and even could taste the sugar in the air, their lives in Mississippi were soured by racially motivated hate crimes and poverty.
Most of the girls in the shop spent their shift gossiping, but Mama Pearl worked out her escape route. Huge trains clanked and screeched as they pulled into the station just across from the shop. She’d tune out talk of boyfriends and church socials and fantasize about hopping aboard. On her 18th birthday, Lucille finally took a train north to Chicago, with grandma along for the ride. Pearl’s father would help them rent an apartment. In 1944, only a week after their arrival at the Roosevelt station, they both landed jobs at the Curtiss Candy Company, the makers of Baby Ruth and Butterfinger.
Six months after their move north, grandma was engaged to my grandfather, Percival Stevens. After the wedding, she and Mama Pearl lost touch. Grandma left Curtiss Candy to be a homemaker, and Pearl kept working. Eventually, she’d rent a room from a woman who owned a dry cleaner at 43rd and State, just blocks away from where grandma was living in the newly built Robert Taylor Homes.
One day Mama Pearl boarded the State Street bus, the same bus grandma happened to be on, and they began chirping updates at one another. Grandma told Pearl about the Robert Taylor Homes and urged her to come to dinner that night. Pearl fell in love with the community the complex provided. Though the brick structures cast shadows on the block, the gardens and playgrounds were lovely, and the neighbors helped keep an eye on one another’s children. Mama Pearl eventually left the dry cleaner and moved onto the same floor as grandma. She babysat mama and Auntie Nora and became part of our family.
Later, as gangs began to form and Mama Pearl began to feel unsafe as a single working woman, she thought it necessary to buy both a Buick and a gun. It would take only one attempted attack for word to spread that Lucille Perkins carried a pistol with a pearl handle, and that she’d shot her assailant in the leg. People left her alone, and that’s when she became known as Mama Pearl.
While everybody had something to say about the projects coming down, Mama Pearl had actually met Robert Taylor, a CHA board member and activist, when both she and the buildings were still young. Her voice, the quietest one, was what I wanted to hear. I pulled on Stacia’s arm and she yanked it back, but Precious followed, and we trailed Mama Pearl into the building. On the elevator she turned to us, her face tight with thought, a finger pointing between us.
“Now, you listen here,” she said. “They gon’ tear down these buildings, and you gonna hurt for your friends and the good times. But you got a lot more living to do. You hear me?” We nodded. “This was a place to live, but it ain’t your life.” We stared at her. She didn’t blink. Didn’t explain. She was done. The elevator doors opened, and we went our separate ways.
Upstairs, Precious and I jammed our faces against the crisscrossed iron gate that faced the playground and 4946. Each time the ball made contact, the bricks fell apart like cookie crumbs. Stacia eventually came upstairs and joined us.
The gathering down on the ground slowly broke up as people remembered what they were supposed to be doing: selling drugs, looking for pop cans, begging for crack quarters, playing by the railroad tracks, running inside to get started on homework. Once the crowd thinned, we remembered that we had something to do too: double Dutch. Precious, Stacia, and I removed our faces from the gate. We looked like somebody had branded us, the imprint of the iron on our skin.
We hung out for a while talking about the buildings and boys and jump rope, and eventually the quilted pattern on our faces faded.
Latoya Wolfe was born on Chicago’s south side and raised in the Robert Taylor Homes. She earned her BA in creative writing at Columbia College, where she’s currently working on an MFA. “Migration” is an excerpt from her forthcoming first novel, Vulture City. Follow her on Twitter at @TosiWoods.