Editor’s note: The Reader is teaming up with Blvck Vrchives founder Renata Cherlise to create multimedia narratives of black life in Chicago. Cherlise’s site offers “a curated visual journey through history.”
The Chicago Housing Authority has a checkered history, having frequently fostered policies that furthered segregation and housing discrimination in the city. For example, soon after it was founded in 1937, the agency adopted the “neighborhood composition rule,” a policy initially devised by the Public Works Administration that (required public housing tenants be of the same race as the other residents of the neighborhood in which the development was located. In abiding by this rule, public housing became concentrated in majority black neighborhoods, and black Americans were further segregated in their communities.
Starting in the 50s, CHA built tens of thousands of public housing units, including massive apartment tower complexes such as Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, once known as the largest public housing development in the world. The Robert Taylor Homes spanned a two-mile stretch of State Street between 39th and 54th Streets, and along with several other housing developments including Harold Ickes and Stateway Gardens, became known as the “State Street corridor.”
But by the 60s and 70s, these buildings were deteriorating, and CHA executives could not handle the mounting complaints for repairs requested by tenants. In a 1966 lawsuit, public housing tenant Dorothy Gautraux alleged that “by concentrating more than 10,000 public housing units in isolated African-American neighborhoods,” the CHA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) were in violation of racial desegregation laws. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme court ruled in favor of Gautraux and required CHA to remedy the problem. Between 1976 and 1998, the CHA’s Gautraux Assisted Housing Program integrated more than 25,000 public housing residents in various Chicago neighborhoods and area suburbs.
As this year marks the 50th anniversary of Gautreaux vs. Chicago Housing Authority, we take a look back at Chicago’s public housing and the living conditions within a segregated city.
Photo credits: Sun-Times Print and Negative Collection