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Thomas Taylor (grey shirt), 54, of North Lawndale, and 59-year-old Wayne Flax, of Austin, workers with McKay Landscaping, work to dismantle and take into storage an old Chicago Housing Authority sign outside the sole remaining building from the Jane Addam
Thomas Taylor (grey shirt), 54, of North Lawndale, and 59-year-old Wayne Flax, of Austin, workers with McKay Landscaping, work to dismantle and take into storage an old Chicago Housing Authority sign outside the sole remaining building from the Jane Addams Homes in the 1300 block of West Taylor Street.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

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Historic CHA sign, once a symbol of the promise of public housing, left damaged and unprotected on Near West Side

The sign, one of the last vestiges of the Robert Taylor Homes, is being put into storage years after it was abandoned outside.

A dirty and dented historic Chicago Housing Authority sign — possibly one of the last remnants of one of the country’s most infamous public housing projects — was put in storage on Wednesday, with no immediate plans for its restoration or display after years of neglect.

The sign has sat outside the sole remaining building from the Jane Addams Homes in Little Italy for at least two years, behind a chainlink fence but unprotected from the elements. The CHA donated the building to the National Public Housing Museum in 2008.

Neither the museum nor the CHA could say how the sign — which was covered in dirt, twigs and rocks — ended up at Jane Addams. Neither have plans to repair it.

The sign has a diameter of 12 feet and weighs approximately 200 pounds. It features the CHA’s old emblem — a handshake in front of a rising sun above a housing development — with the latin phrase “Ad Meliorem Vitam” (“a better life”) flowing inside a ribbon at the bottom. The year 1937 is listed in large numerals across the top.

A two-man crew from McKay’s Landscaping took the sign apart on Wednesday. The four top parts of the sign were completely saved and taken to a storage unit across the street from the museum in River North. The crew scrapped the base of the sign, which had mostly rotted away.

Museum executive director Lisa Lee said her staff found the sign once remediation crews started working on the inside of the building in 2017. The sign was moved outside and was never brought back in.

“Maybe we should’ve kept it up more meticulously,” Lee said, adding that the CHA basically “dumped” and “abandoned” the sign at Jane Addams. Lee said the museum doesn’t expect to display the sign in any upcoming exhibits. For now, she said, “it’ll be in storage until we decide what to do with it.”

In a statement, a CHA spokesperson said the agency “is pleased that the sign is now with the museum as it continues to build its collection of artifacts that can help tell the important story of public housing in Chicago.”

History of Robert Taylor Homes

The Robert Taylor Homes opened in 1962 with a promise to replace the “Black Belt,” one of Chicago’s worst slums, with better housing. The project — made up of 28 identical, 16-story high-rises encompassing 4,415 apartments with the capacity for 27,000 people — towered over State Street from Pershing Road to Garfield Boulevard.

Photos show the sign hung atop a power plant built to heat the Robert Taylor Homes. D. Bradford Hunt, vice president of the Newberry Library, said the sign was “probably the only one like it ever made.”

But the power plant was scrapped in 1974 — just after 12 years in operation — for being inefficient and unreliable, said Hunt, author of “Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing.” Pipes in the project frequently burst, leaving residents without heat for months at time.

The project itself didn’t fare much better. By 1975, one in eight units were vacant and only 8% of tenants had jobs, down from 50% in 1963, records show. Single mothers largely replaced the two-parent families who moved out, leading to a 3-to-1 ratio of kids to adults. Vandalism and gang violence were rampant.

After years of decay and mismanagement, the CHA decided to tear down the Robert Taylor Homes in 1996. By 2005, all residents had moved out and the last building was demolished in 2007.

Historians agree that the rise and fall of Taylor offers important lessons about the city and its residents, yet little from the site remains today. Most of the lots where the high-rises stood remain vacant. There are no plaques or commemorative statues.

Hunt said the sign is “indicative” of how the CHA once proudly displayed its name and likeness on its buildings across the city — but no longer does so.

“It’s very hard to find the CHA’s symbol anywhere because in the public mind, public housing is somehow not a good thing,” he said.

The sign sat atop the power plant at the Robert Taylor Homes. This photo was taken in 2003, long after it closed.
Flickr/artistmac

What happened to the sign after the power plant closed and until the museum staff found it remains a mystery.

Lee, who became the museum’s director in 2017, said the sign’s fate speaks volumes about the history of public housing in Chicago.

“The history of the CHA’s buildings and artifacts is one abandonment and disregard,” she said. “All objects have a story to tell and sometimes they tell the story whether we want them to or not.”

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps members of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.

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