They knew the cops wouldn’t come when called. So starting in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the tenant leaders at Robert Taylor Homes came up with alternatives. “Police ain’t interested in coming here for every little thing that was going on,” Lucille Rick told sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh. “So me and Edith and Caroline and [other elected Local Advisory Council officers], we just tried to, you know, make sure that they came when really bad stuff happened.”

Residents and police struck an informal deal based on individuals acting as brokers between the two groups, explains Venkatesh in his new book, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto. “Tenant leaders wanted to retain control over social activity in and around their buildings, and law enforcement wished to be liberated from the difficulties of providing enforcement in a densely populated, vertically structured development.” Law enforcement was indeed liberated. “On domestic calls the police often won’t even show up,” one officer told the New York Times in 1980, acknowledging that Taylor’s 20 city blocks–4,415 apartments in 28 buildings that were 16 stories high–were covered by just two regular beat cars.

Such brokered arrangements prevailed for decades. In other city neighborhoods, people whose garbage hasn’t been picked up often call the alderman first and get him or her to deal with the Department of Streets and Sanitation. Robert Taylor’s situation was analogous but more desperate. Venkatesh saw firsthand how the brokered arrangements worked when he stayed overnight at one resident’s apartment and it was burglarized. “Instead of calling the police immediately,” he recalls, “they called the tenant leader in their building, who called a friend on the police force, who in turn sent two local police officers to investigate the robbery.”

Most Americans think of Robert Taylor as an earthly approximation of hell–a place where predators ravage victims while a few isolated heroes perform good deeds. Venkatesh, who spent most of the 90s in Robert Taylor, got beyond that stereotype. In American Project he shows how the residents were able to do a lot for themselves. And he exposes the shameful reason they had to: over time, the police, Congress, the Chicago Housing Authority, the social service agencies, and other public servants simply quit on them. Few other American communities have had to bear such a burden of abandonment, and few would have been blamed for the results.

In the 1960s many resident leaders had joined informal “Mama’s Mafias,” keeping an eye on each other’s kids and challenging the youth gangs that caused trouble and committed occasional crimes. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, these leaders were taxing their ingenuity to deal with situations when they couldn’t expect any police help. They found resources wherever they could. For instance, many men lived at Robert Taylor “off the books,” spending their days in public areas away from their apartments, because welfare recipients weren’t allowed to have a man in the house. Wyona Wilson (Venkatesh changed the names and addresses of the residents) found a way, soon adopted in other buildings, to turn this problem into an asset. She agreed not to turn the men in, provided that they locate and punish burglars, wife beaters, and other troublemakers as she directed.

“Lot of us was living with our women, you know,” Michael Minnow, who’d lived in Robert Taylor off the books for nearly 30 years, told Venkatesh. “They was getting [public assistance], right. So we had to keep a low profile. So we did anything they wanted. Yeah, that meant we beat the shit out of niggers who was beating up women, or stealing, or just causing trouble. Hell, we’d be sitting in that parking lot and someone would come down yelling at someone else for stealing something. That’s all we needed to hear!”

Robert Taylor residents’ “indigenous enforcement efforts,” as Venkatesh calls them, varied with the problem. “Group patrols and watches were typically more suitable for locating incidents of fire, theft, and sexual abuse inside buildings; tenant leaders called public meetings to gain information on the whereabouts of suspected criminals; a phone call to a broker who had connections with police officers was the preferred strategy for rapid response to violent crime.” Both the residents and Venkatesh agree that these strategies were an “imperfect substitute” for mainstream law enforcement. But given that mainstream law enforcement wasn’t coming anyway, being able to do something gave people self- confidence. “There may have been crime and vandalism during [the 1970s],” writes Venkatesh, “but individuals also expressed a deep sense of control over their local habitat.”

Changes in the outside world in the 1970s reshaped life at Robert Taylor. The economy slowed, and Chicago began its long hemorrhage of blue-collar jobs. The withdrawal of outside help continued as the Chicago Housing Authority gradually quit screening tenants and gave up on its original plan of making Taylor a mixed-income development. New residents were younger and poorer than the established residents, and all residents had trouble finding work. To fill the job gap, residents often came up with “hustles” that enabled them to survive and show some independence. Some hustles were illegal in themselves, others were illegal only in that the income wasn’t reported to welfare or tax authorities. Some provided legitimate services, some were disruptive, and some were both. Tenant leaders did their best to make sure the underground economy stayed under control.

“Each floor had something going on,” Judy Harris told Venkatesh, recalling her building in the 70s. “Different floor captains had their tastes, so on the fifth floor you had soul food cooking, below that it was marijuana. You had gamblers between the seventh and the ninth, in the stairwells, and you could always find a game. And let’s see, on my floor and up above you had people whoring and pimping like crazy, but I was the best one and drove all them out of business pretty quickly!

“Oh yeah, and you had [Louisa] Lenard making African-style clothing, and then Mary Watkins was making clothes for babies on the same floor, and every weekend you could just walk up and down that damn floor and go clothes shopping. See, that was nice because lot of us didn’t have cars so we couldn’t drive to the stores. And people who stole stuff, like shoes or shirts, they’d bring their shit to that floor too, so you had like the Maxwell Street Market going on right here.” In a nearby building, Paulina Collins hired women to help her make and sell “baked lunches” to tenants, janitors, construction workers, CHA management, and police officers.

In a time-honored arrangement not unknown in other parts of Chicago, LAC leaders agreed not to report enterprises that paid them a percentage. Some of that money went into the leaders’ pockets, and some went into a common pool. In the 1970s six buildings maintained funds “that assisted residents during times of financial emergency, such as rent delinquency and bail posting.”

Much as NIMBY activists elsewhere sometimes manage to chase away landfills, active and powerful LAC leaders could often shift unwelcome activity into less-organized areas. Police officer William Levins recalled, “Ms. Harrison, she was one of those people that, well, let’s just say Main Ave. was like her backyard. You want to sell dope, you do it down the street, she don’t care. But not near her building. She’d wake me up, three in the morning, to stop somebody smoking reefer who was too loud or something.”

At least in retrospect, Robert Taylor residents found the 1970s manageable. The 1980s were harder. A number of inner-city gangs grew from “mostly petty delinquents who participated irregularly in violent and criminal activity” into profit-seeking criminal corporations. At Robert Taylor, the gang Venkatesh calls the Black Kings gradually systematized drug sales and imposed an almost industrial routine on its rank and file. By about 1990 the gang’s reorganization was complete. “Placed in sales groups of four or six people and assigned to specific locations, members sold narcotics at all hours…. Each set [subdivision of the gang] had a four-to-six-person officer body that created timetables and shifts for the sales and security teams and that collected street taxes from underground entrepreneurs…. The entire membership met once or twice a month in a public area, church, or social-service agency. An agenda for a typical meeting covered, in order: attendance, dues collection, sales reports, arrests and injuries to members, discussion of superiors’ directives, notification of border disputes (typically with the enemy Sharks gang), and physical and monetary punishment of members who violated group by-laws.”

This new kind of gang occupied public spaces in the development constantly, and occasionally made them dangerous with flying bullets. Its threat was social as well as physical. During the 1980s the Black Kings began to unravel the LAC leaders’ arrangements with hustlers and police. For LAC president Kelly Davis the crisis came in May 1988, when the Black Kings decided to start selling “protection” to hustler-entrepreneurs like Maurice Wilson, who did car repair off the books. Wilson was already paying Davis to keep the police away, and he refused the Black Kings’ demand that he pay a second time for the same service. In broad daylight, outside Davis’s building, they beat him with baseball bats–their way of announcing a corporate takeover. Davis was mortified. She felt she’d let her residents down: “We was doing well until then, it was our community. Then they took over.”

Just when the residents needed outside help more than ever, they got less. The Reagan administration cut the federal housing budget by 76 percent. The CHA’s operating budget declined by 87 percent, and the agency’s priorities for what money it had left shifted away from maintenance and community involvement. In the late 1980s CHA chairman Vincent Lane favored “gang suppression” policing techniques that gave low priority to prevention or community involvement. These techniques, Venkatesh writes, included heavy surveillance, unannounced apartment searches, stop-and-frisk actions, and dispersing gang members from public spaces. They didn’t include any kind of community policing. “Neither the CHA nor the Chicago police were adequately incorporating preventive policing in which the police patrolled on foot to interact and become familiar with residents, street-corner dwellers, and storeowners. When foot patrols were incorporated, as in the 1994 Building Interdiction Team Effort (BITE) program, they were used in a largely token manner, in the form of occasional discussions by law enforcement officers with tenants who happened to be nearby.” As a result, “the gulf between tenants and the law enforcement community widened” just at the time it needed to be closed. Police became less willing than before to carry out their part of the long-standing brokered arrangement.

One LAC leader said, “No one knew what to do, you know what I’m saying. We ain’t never seen nothing like that, young kids beating up people for nothing, people shooting each other.” Yet the residents didn’t see the new gangs as an embodiment of pure evil, the way outsiders often did; rather they recognized that the gangs presented them with a moral dilemma.

For one thing, the gang members committing these terrible acts were the residents’ children and neighbors, and often a source of income for their families. Typically their families knew they were doing wrong but saw them as people who needed to redirect their energies. “Grady had a job, still keeps working now and then,” one gang leader’s father told Venkatesh. “Cleaning that asbestos. He got kids now, and I try to tell him he needs to stay working, stop dealing the drugs and banging with these niggers.”

Many family admonitions were more strident. Venkatesh went home with Black Kings leader Anthony Kline on one occasion when the Black Kings were rumored to have killed a member of the Sharks gang. Michael, Anthony’s uncle, greeted them at the door:

“‘You killed that boy, I knew that boy. You shot him dead.’

“‘I didn’t shoot him,’ said Anthony, lowering his head and walking over to the couch.

“‘You know what I mean, boy, don’t play games with me. You want to come see his family?’

“‘Anthony, how could you do that, when is this going to stop?’ said Anthony’s mother.

“‘Stop? Those niggers [in the Sharks gang] started it. I said I ain’t done nothing.’

“‘You better get yourself organized, you got to deal with this. It ain’t right,’ said Michael, who walked out of the room and into the kitchen, shaking his head.

“‘Yeah, well, you can get the fuck out, nigger. Get the fuck out of my house, you bitch. I’m bringing home money around this motherfucker, you ain’t making shit. You can’t even feed your own family, shit. You just a bitch.’

“‘Anthony! Don’t ever yell at your uncle like that. You go and find out how that boy’s family is doing, you give your money to them. You want to deal these drugs, you just make sure you ain’t killing nobody.’

“‘Ain’t that easy, momma,’ said Anthony. ‘You know that.’

“‘Ain’t that hard either, baby,’ his mother answered. ‘Put your mind to it, I keep telling you that, just get out [of the gang].'”

Venkatesh says such confrontations were important. “None of the [gang] leaders had much sustained contact with broader social institutions apart from the police, an employer, and, on rare occasions, a pastor or minister. Thus the continuous interrogation inside the home becomes one of the few means by which they receive the moral instruction of the mainstream.” Once again the residents were standing in for the representatives of mainstream society who weren’t there. If Robert Taylor had been a dysfunctional social sinkhole, these family members would have simply taken the money, cringed, and shut up. If it had been given the help it needed, the situation wouldn’t have deteriorated as badly as it did.

Another source of perplexity for residents was that the gangs’ own official creeds called on them to do more than just make money. Venkatesh and University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt explain in the Autumn 2000 issue of Theory and Society that the Black Kings and other gangs “have documented part of their history orally and in written pamphlets–what members refer to as their ‘lit.'” According to that literature, Black Kings recite that they “must join as one to resist the oppression that faces all black youth. With this oath you have found a new family, a brotherhood that will always be with you.”

Such oaths led the gangs to make occasional gestures of social responsibility. They would, for instance, sometimes help tenants with small amounts of cash. “During the summer they routinely hosted cook-outs and passed out free food and beer,” Venkatesh writes in his book. “Throughout the year, they offered the use of a car for errands, and they assisted tenant leaders in their search for apartment burglars.” In 1993, with profoundly mixed feelings, Shadie Sanders saw them do even more. “This guy was beating up Ms. Elvers on the ninth floor, and we had to watch this go on for some time. She was too scared to do anything, and we tried calling the police and getting her help. But we couldn’t find nothing close by. Prince and them ran after him, right over there [pointing to the grass next to the building]. They beat him and beat him and beat him and then they took him back to Ms. Elvers and they made him apologize. Lord, have mercy! That man didn’t come around causing no fuss no more!… I wasn’t happy that the gangs was doing what the police should’ve been doing. But I was happy that these mens wasn’t coming around so much anymore [and] beating up my friends.”

Yet day in and day out, gang members were much more likely to harass or abuse women than protect them. In an attempt to deal with such problems, the leader of a citywide gang-truce group Venkatesh calls No More Wars and LAC leader Edith Huddle organized an informal community court that met several times a month in 1992 and 1993. A “jury” consisting of an LAC leader, a citywide gang mediator, and three former gang members from other neighborhoods would hear tenants’ complaints against gang members for sexual harassment, extortion, or other offenses. “Typically the gang’s reprimands were physical punishment whereas the jury secured apologies, monetary payments, and the return of stolen goods. Tenants did not participate in droves; for example, in the third month, only seven people used the court’s services, but there were some benefits.”

Initiatives such as the community court suggested that gangs could be dealt with as members of the community, albeit errant ones. LAC leader Kim Walton figured “the gangs are here to stay.” According to Venkatesh, she “admitted receiving ‘a few dollars a week’ from Anthony Kline to remain quiet about gang activity. In return, Kline agreed to keep Twenty-seventh St. BK activity away from children living in Walton’s high-rise.”

But many residents didn’t like Walton’s reasoning or the court. The gang’s beneficial services were “highly irregular and no one relied on them,” Venkatesh writes. “The majority of the gang’s [alleged] positive functions were actually activities that BK members and tenants interpreted differently. For example, BK members who stood outside lobby areas and on street corners to observe passers-by defended these actions as part of their security provision for the community. Few tenants accepted this explanation.” Most residents didn’t believe that “the benefits of secretive negotiations with gang leaders would trickle down to the constituents in the buildings…. One tenant interrupted an LAC meeting, screaming, ‘How come you all be working with [the gangs] and taking their money, but you can’t get them to stop shooting outside?'”

During the summer and autumn of 1993, Venkatesh writes, “Two distinct constituencies formed within the tenant body around these issues, and both fought for the right to determine how the Robert Taylor community would act to ensure the viability of life in public housing…. Huddle and Walton were opposed by Cathy Blanchard and Paulina Collins, two tenant leaders who not only wanted to end collaboration with gangs, but also were campaigning to unseat Walton, Huddle, and their colleagues who advocated it.”

Most Robert Taylor tenants couldn’t reconcile the contradiction between the gangs’ occasional acts of charity and their destructive drug trade and murderous turf battles. In Local Advisory Council elections in 1994 voters turned out most of the leaders who’d supported collaboration. “They did not throw the gang out of the community in some dramatic fashion,” writes Venkatesh. They couldn’t. “Instead, they cast out the gang as a potentially legitimate player in any tenant-based coalition working to improve the well-being of households. They did so not as a disorganized community, but in a way that revealed the presence of a healthy, normative foundation amid deeply rooted economic impoverishment. In an almost idealized American manner, they deliberated, debated, reflected on their experiences, and determined that using the gang to meet their own needs was ultimately a poor strategy.”

Corporate gangs never took complete control of Robert Taylor. “Most tenants preferred to pay off the LAC and suffer any consequences if the gang chose to retaliate–which could take the form of either indifference or physical abuse…. In 1992, Edith Huddle counted twenty-six entrepreneurs operating in the 210 building who were not regulated by her or by the BK leader Mason, who had jurisdiction in that high-rise.”

In the last half of the 1990s, Congress and the CHA moved toward demolishing high-rises, a new disruption of the tenants’ daily life. “In this atmosphere of perpetual change, it was difficult to sustain the informal ties of reciprocity through which material resources, emotional support, and protective services had traditionally been exchanged,” writes Venkatesh. “Bible-reading groups, senior citizens’ clubs that ran errands together, tenant patrols, and block clubs were either reconstituted or disbanded altogether.”

Did the residents of Robert Taylor fail? Or did we fail them? “We ask more of the poor, and particularly those in public housing, than we expect from other citizens,” concludes Venkatesh. “Would residents of a suburb, to offer only one example, be expected to work largely on their own to curb gang activity, and, if they failed to do so, would most Americans then ask whether suburbs were no longer viable planned spaces of residence?”

The idea is popular now that public housing was a “social void” that was finally filled by the gangs. (Susan Popkin and colleagues use this phrase in their book The Hidden War.) Many people think we can tear Taylor and other high-rises down with a clear conscience because nothing worthwhile survives in them. Venkatesh disagrees, observing that the residents’ lives “cannot be reduced to victimhood or equated with hardship alone.”

Venkatesh doesn’t claim that Robert Taylor could still be saved. But what if we and the mayors Daley and the mayors in between hadn’t shrugged and abandoned it to its fate? “Perhaps tenants’ networks and associations could have been strengthened,” he writes, “and the capacity of the overall community to meet its needs could have been restored.”

As Robert Taylor Homes is reduced to rubble, many of its alumni are winding up in all-black, all-poor neighborhoods on the south and west sides and in their suburbs. Uprooted once again, they will have to re-create a supportive social milieu in a new place, as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents struggled to do at Taylor.

Will the liberals and conservatives–who think they’re doing residents a favor just by tearing down the high-rises–offer them any more help afterward than they did before? Everybody knows where Taylor is. But how many Chicagoans can even point in the direction of Roseland? Will the city and the social-service agencies that abandoned these people when they lived in Robert Taylor Homes treat them better as they become less visible? Or has their “American project”–and Venkatesh’s account of it–been in vain?

American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto by Sudhir Venkatesh, Harvard University Press, $29.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark DeBernardi.