Rapper Open Mike Eagle lives in Los Angeles now, but he grew up in Hyde Park and has family all over the south side. One of his aunts and several first cousins lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, which were demolished over the course of nine years beginning in 1998. Eagle’s most recent album, last September’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, is a touching, imaginative tribute to that housing project—after watching an hour-long PBS documentary about the Robert Taylor Homes called Crisis on Federal Street on a flight, he drew on archived government reports, YouTube videos, and his own memories to capture the feeling and meaning of life in Chicago’s public-housing high-rises. I spoke to Eagle about some of the videos he watched as part of his research for the album; his comments follow.
Open Mike Eagle
Fri 7/20, 4-4:45 PM, Blue Stage
Crisis on Federal Street
This 1987 documentary profiles a family that lives in the Robert Taylors. It starts historically with how and why they were built, and it chronicles when the matriarch of this family moved into that place, like, 40 or 50 years before 1987. It spends a lot of time with her family—it’s three generations of her family living in one apartment. It does this really good job of profiling each of her children. One is an unwed mom—she’s been trying to find jobs and get work and hasn’t been able to do it.
It shows the deterioration of the promises that this place once had for these residents, and how it fell into disrepair, and how scary it had become to live there. It’s a lot, but it’s probably the piece I found most inspirational, and I kept coming back to.
It really was a stark reminder to me of what it was like to live in and around those buildings—the visceral, emotional, and memory component was just fully engaged. I was around there in 1987. I could have been in another one of those buildings at that very moment.
Rare Throwback Special Report: “Chicago Housing Projects”
This video looks like it was produced using footage from around the time that the buildings were demolished. It starts with historical images from before they were developed. Then it goes all the way into profiling people being redistributed out of the buildings and people looking to buy redeveloped properties—not in the Robert Taylors, because there’s not redevelopment there, but in Cabrini-Green. You get a historical context in this one: you get families living there, but you also get up until the redistribution and the startling redistribution statistics.
They lost—they lost—a third of the people. They had data on the people who lived there, data on where those people would be redistributed to, and they just lost track of, like, 10,000 people that just don’t exist in terms of “where are they now.” They could be dead, they could be somewhere else—it pointed to there being not a lot of real thought into what was going to happen.
“The History of the Chicago Housing Authority” by Naja Harrington
This 2015 YouTube video seems to be something that a school-age child made as a project, exploring the history of the Chicago Housing Authority. She narrates the whole thing—it’s like it’s a class project. Clearly this is somebody who had lived in this area and was trying to learn more about the forces that were shaping their community, and she made this really cool video essay about the history of Chicago housing.
Her age and perspective was unique, because everybody else’s profiles are . . . like a sociologist doing an ethnography. Hers is more like, “This is the community where I live, and this is the organization they’re shaped in.” There’s nowhere to get that perspective from anywhere else.
The Last Robert Taylor Homes Hi-Rise Demolition, Pt. 5
Someone literally just pointed a video camera at one of the yellow buildings being demolished—there’s no dialogue or voice-over or anything. It’s such a weird meditation. And it’s triggering. There’s a warning in front of it—if you lived there, you might not want to look.
It was emotional for me to watch. But at the same time, it was also like, “Oh, if this can be done in video, maybe I can do something like this with songs.” Even though the buildings aren’t here anymore, this video capturing the building’s destruction, I can watch it any time, as long as there’s an Internet. It inspired me to make the record. I could use what I do to chronicle this stuff and make the monument myself. I’m not able to actually go to the place and build a thing, but I can use what I do to bring what I feel is a proper amount of attention and respect to what happened here. v