April 12, 2018

A Hip-Hop Elegy to Chicago’s Demolished Housing Projects

Note: The songs mentioned in this story contain explicit language.

For his fifth LP, released in 2017, alternative hip-hop artist Open Mike Eagle crafts a love letter to the Robert Taylor Homes—a now-demolished public housing complex in Chicago’s South Side—where he grew up in the 1980s and early ’90s. The Robert Taylor Homes were part of the State Street Corridor, a group of public housing projects constructed in the mid-20th century by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA).

According to an August 2017 story from NPR, Open Mike Eagle sources his inspiration for Brick Body Kids Still Daydream back to documentaries about the life of the Robert Taylor Homes and its demolition.

The Robert Taylor Homes housing complex in the midst of demolition.

photo by: Flickr/ChicagoEye/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Robert Taylor Homes high-rise housing complex in the midst of demolition.

Located next to the Dan Ryan Expressway in the Bronzeville neighborhood, these historic housing complexes were created to segregate low-income African Americans from the rest of Chicago. Ironically, the Robert Taylor Homes were named for Robert Ronchon Taylor, the first African American CHA board member. Taylor resigned from the board in protest in 1950 when the city council refused to racially integrate housing throughout Chicago. But despite the overcrowding, disrepair, and crime they faced, State Street Corridor tenants found a home and a community—often for multiple generations.

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took control of the CHA to address the board’s long history of mismanagement and corruption. In 1999, the CHA was returned to the city in exchange for radically changing its approach to public housing. While the city had already started demolishing some of its high-rise public housing, a new program called the Plan for Transformation intended to demolish nearly 18,000 units of public housing and construct or renovate 25,000 units at the same time over five to seven years, according to a 2017 story in South Side Weekly.

The Robert Taylor Homes and the other complexes along State Street Corridor were included in the number of demolished buildings, and the decision was reached without the residents’ consent. What’s more, the demolished complexes were never adequately replaced.

A 2014 photo essay from NPR states that the Plan for Transformation intended to move everyone living in the demolished public housing units into rehabilitated public housing, subsidized private market rentals, and new mixed-income housing developments. In reality, only 56 percent of former residents remained in the system at all—and the majority of those residents either remained in public housing or moved to subsidized rentals. Just under 2,000 people were moved into mixed income housing. 44 percent of former residents were disqualified, moved into the private market, retained right of return, died, or were “lost in the bureaucratic shuffle,” the NPR story says. And the CHA is still answering for its original failed project, no closer to creating new housing complexes than it was 20 years ago.

Open Mike Eagle’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream expertly ties the physical place of the Robert Taylor Homes to the lives of the communities that once lived there, and the trauma created by their involuntary displacement. In songs like “Brick Body Complex,” for example, Open Mike Eagle personifies the Robert Taylor Homes when he raps, “My other name is 3-9-2-5/Make sure that my story’s told/16 or so stories high/Constructed 55 years ago” (3925 references the address of the Robert Taylor Homes building).

Open Mike Eagle also ties themes of black empowerment to place within the song. Lyrics include “City say they gonna knock me down/Still wearing my iron hood/Told y’all you won’t stop me now” and are reiterated in the chorus with “I’m from a line of ghetto superheroes … A giant and my body is a building, a building, a building, a building.”

The music video for “Brick Body Complex” dives deeper into this theme, with Open Mike Eagle posing as a superhero named the Iron Fist who protects a predominantly African American housing complex from an unknown, masked villain attempting to knock it down. The video contrasts commonly held images of gentrification, such as young white people holding expensive drinks in mason jars and doing yoga, with that of black protesters forming a human chain to protect their home.

The final song on Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, “My Auntie’s Building,” is the most overt telling of the Robert Taylor Homes’s story. The song highlights the building’s neglect (“A high rise without no lobby/Run up stairwells like Rocky/’Cause these elevators so sloppy”) and exposes the full humanity of its residents (“…It was people there and kids there/And drug dealers and church folk”).

Image of a sidewalk in front of the former Robert Taylor Homes.

photo by: Flickr/ChicagoEye/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The spot where the Robert Taylor Homes and other South Side housing complexes once existed are now ghost towns.

“My Auntie’s Building” ends on a dark note: the repetition of the line “That’s the sound of them tearing my body down, to the ground.” The LP’s conclusion invokes the trauma experienced by those who have been displaced and find themselves without a home or community.

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream speaks to music’s ability to raise the profile of endangered places with real connections to human lives, a forte of hip-hop since the genre’s inception. With his most recent album, Open Mike Eagle successfully saves the memory of a historic place critical to his own growth as an artist and a person.

Carson Bear was an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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