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The Goldberg variation: High-rise public housing that works

Bertrand Goldberg’s Hilliard Homes opened as a model community in 1966. It still is today.

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The first tenants moved into Bertrand Goldberg’s Hilliard Homes 50 years ago this fall. - ORLANDO CABANBAN/AIC RYERSON & BURNHAM LIBRARIES
  • Orlando Cabanban/AIC Ryerson & Burnham Libraries
  • The first tenants moved into Bertrand Goldberg’s Hilliard Homes 50 years ago this fall.

It was July 1966, and Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg was celebrating his 53rd birthday at the construction site of his latest development. Although not yet complete, the four concrete towers of the Raymond Hilliard Homes emerging just east of Chinatown already had what would come to be Goldberg's signature bulbous, organic shapes, reminiscent of corncobs or honeycombs.

Goldberg, likely dressed in the gold suspenders, speckled shirt, and gold sneakers he often wore for such occasions, had the construction site decorated with Japanese lanterns strung up on bulldozers and other heavy equipment, and set trays of canapes out on two-by-fours. His 50-odd guests, culled from the city's social, cultural, and business elite, chatted and danced to live music. Some even donned hard hats, but as the night wore on and fear of falling construction debris was subdued by gin martinis, the hats disappeared.

Goldberg was at the peak of his career, having already garnered international acclaim for his now-iconic Marina City, a city within a city meant to showcase the wonders of dense, urban living to an American public increasingly fleeing to the suburbs. And years later the architect would clearly remember one of his wealthy guests strolling up to him at the party, looking around the site, and asking: "Why can't you build this for us?"

Unlike the recently completed Marina City, Hilliard Homes was a public housing project, intended to shelter not the well-heeled elite but the poorest of Chicago's citizens. Goldberg designed the two 17-story round towers for senior citizens, and the two 22-story crescent towers for families with children. His goal was to demonstrate that public housing didn't have to be bleak, ticky-tacky boxes like the ones that dotted the landscape to the south of the site.

Eventually, upon its completion, the grounds of the Hilliard Homes would be planted with honey locust, maple, and flowering crabapple trees. A community center would be built for activities ranging from literacy classes for the elderly to dances for teens. A playground with slides, swings, and concrete animal figures for climbing would be situated within easy view of the mothers who would come to look down from the open-air gallery hallways. A drag- racing path for bikes would wind around the periphery. Goldberg was particularly proud of a sunken amphitheater at the heart of the site that could seat 800 people, "a first in public housing" the Chicago Housing Authority Times declared in January 1966.

"I hope that the people who will live in these units will not feel that because they are poor they are being punished," he explained at the completion of the project.

But less than a decade after Hilliard opened, America began to embrace the idea that high-rise public housing doesn't work. This mantra has been repeated countless times by politicians, planners, and policy makers alike, ever since the televised demolition of the Pruitt–Igoe development in Saint Louis in 1972. The notion that high-rise public housing is inherently flawed gained so much traction that by the 1990s the federal government launched a National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing. The commission determined that public housing high-rises in most cities were in such poor condition that the only way forward would be to demolish them, cementing the notion in the minds of observers across the country that high-rise buildings weren't viable spaces for poor families.

Chicago's own so-called Plan for Transformation—the 1999 overhaul that ultimately led to the demolition of two-thirds of the agency's housing stock and nearly all of its high­rises—was predicated on the commission's findings. Most of the CHA's buildings failed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s viability test, which meant to determine whether it was cheaper to rehab a property or demolish it and give all the tenants Section 8 rental vouchers.

But while the towers of Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes were torn down, Hilliard conspicuously survived. Today the quality of life at the development flies in the face of conventional wisdom about high-rise public housing and serves as a call to reexamine the root causes of dilapidation and despair at CHA's more infamous projects.

"Hilliard is here to prove to you that it can work, and will work," as one longtime resident puts it. "It depends on management."

Completed in 1966, the Raymond Hilliard Homes were the CHA’s final attempt at high-rise public housing. - ORLANDO CABANBAN/AIC RYERSON & BURNHAM LIBRARIES
  • Orlando Cabanban/AIC Ryerson & Burnham Libraries
  • Completed in 1966, the Raymond Hilliard Homes were the CHA’s final attempt at high-rise public housing.

Hilliard's uniqueness couldn't have been predicted by its planners' choice of location.

The project site along the State Street Corridor was proposed in 1963, much to the chagrin of civil rights groups like the Urban League and NAACP that were already planning to sue the city for concentrating nearly all of its public housing in segregated areas. The four-mile stretch from 18th to 54th Street was already home to the largest project in the nation, the Robert Taylor Homes, and three other developments housing tens of thousands of black residents; with the completion of Hilliard the corridor would hold more than 8,000 subsidized apartments. Nevertheless the CHA pushed on, justifying the choice of site as "slum clearance." The 12.5-acre parcel at State and Cermak was part of what a 1966 article in Architectural Forum magazine called "one of the city's worst concentrations of junkyards and shabby bars."

But right from the start, the vision for Hilliard was unlike that for any other CHA development.

Whereas other high-rise projects along the corridor were built on the cheap, the CHA brought in Goldberg to design the new project, hoping to mollify the protesting civil rights groups and promising that better architecture would lead to better social outcomes. It would be the agency's final high-rise project, and "this last 'statement' was to indicate progress in Chicago's treatment of its public housing problem," Goldberg wrote in 1968. "The design was encouraged to provide a 'crown' for the new five mile ghetto to the south, as well as an oasis of park, recreation and housing near the loop."

Indeed, when families moved in just a few months after Goldberg's construction-site birthday party, Hilliard Homes was instantly recognized as a model community, socially as well as architecturally. Though the project's residents were predominantly African­-American, Hilliard managed to attract some Chinese, Hispanic, and even elderly white residents too—a first for the corridor.

"The grubby cross-section of Cermak and State suddenly has gone mod," declared a Chicago Daily News article in November 1966.

"It was beautiful—something that we had never seen before," says Maner Wiley, who was 11 when she, her parents, and her seven siblings moved into Hilliard that fall from nearby Robert Taylor Homes. To her, the new project was "a paradise compared to Robert Taylor," where she and her siblings were frequently beaten up by other kids.

Whereas other developments were planned to accommodate very large and often very poor families, Hilliard was planned and managed in such a way that there were more working people and fewer large families.

At Robert Taylor, 80 percent of the apartments had between three and five bedrooms; of the approximately 27,000 residents around 20,000 were children.

Although Hilliard was home to fewer children than other public housing high-rises, the complex hosted activities and included child-friendly features like an amphitheater and drag-racing path. - ORLANDO CABANBAN/AIC RYERSON & BURNHAM LIBRARIES
  • Orlando Cabanban/AIC Ryerson & Burnham Libraries
  • Although Hilliard was home to fewer children than other public housing high-rises, the complex hosted activities and included child-friendly features like an amphitheater and drag-racing path.

"In no sizeable residential community in modern history had so many youths been supervised by so few adults," writes historian Brad Hunt in the 2015 anthology Public Housing Myths: Perception, Reality, and Social Policy. The overwhelming number of kids led to "debilitating social disorder" and the deterioration of the physical site. Trash chutes, mailboxes, playground equipment, and especially elevators took a beating from children's games, he writes; vandalism was a growing problem as the kids grew older.

Simultaneously, President Lyndon B. Johnson's "war on poverty" in the early 1960s opened public housing up to the most financially struggling families, not just the "deserving" working poor. This would present a new problem: CHA building maintenance budgets were tied to rents, and with more very poor families there was less money for building upkeep.

The combination of these factors was a "blueprint for disaster," according to Hunt. Despite the new, progressive vision for public housing on the federal level, the planning and management of projects in Chicago would doom them to failure.

But at Hilliard, things played out differently—at least at first.

The average Hilliard apartment had just two bedrooms, and the complex as a whole had just four kids for every three adults; most families had between one and three children (Wiley's was one of just seven that had eight or more).

A more balanced kid-to-adult ratio helped maintain social control. "Mothers volunteered to make sure that we didn't overpack the elevators," Wiley says. "That kept down fighting."

And unlike the older developments, the applicant screening for Hilliard was intense—Wiley remembers that the father, mother, or both parents had to work to qualify. The tenant screening led to larger number of what the CHA then called "normal" rather than "broken" families. In 1968, 78 percent of the households had two parents, while on average just 43 percent of CHA households did.

More parents, more of whom worked and paid higher rents, assured a higher maintenance budget for the property. Robert Taylor Homes and other high-rises were plagued by broken elevators and incinerators, heating that was either scorching or nonexistent, and constant vandalism in hallways and stairwells. But Hilliard was in good shape until the late 70s, by which time other CHA projects already had notorious reputations for dilapidation and disorder.

Designed to accommodate smaller families than other projects, most Hilliard apartments featured two or three bedrooms; with the completion of Hilliard in 1966, the State Street Corridor had more than 8,000 units of public housing across five developments. - AIC RYERSON & BURNHAM LIBRARIES
  • AIC Ryerson & Burnham Libraries
  • Designed to accommodate smaller families than other projects, most Hilliard apartments featured two or three bedrooms; with the completion of Hilliard in 1966, the State Street Corridor had more than 8,000 units of public housing across five developments.

Goldberg thought the reason why it looked like poor people couldn't live in high-rises was because planners hadn't thought about how to compensate for the kids' lack of entertainment options. And the kids, who felt stigmatized, found ways to bolster their self-esteem that wound up being destructive, such as forming gangs and "wrecking elevators," Goldberg theorized in a 1992 oral history interview with the Art Institute of Chicago.

To combat this problem, the architect set forth a vision for activities and programming. Indeed, after Wiley's family settled into a seventh-floor four-bedroom apartment, she and her brothers and sisters were quickly engulfed by the bustling social life of the new development. "They had different activities going on for the kids over here," Wiley says, recalling dance contests and talent shows in the amphitheater. "All year round we were doing something creative." She even remembers meeting Goldberg a few times—he and his wife would occasionally throw a party for the kids, with pizza, soda, and games.

To Goldberg, there was nothing unnatural about housing families with children—even poor ones—in tall buildings. You just had to make sure the buildings were well designed, well built, well programed, well managed, and well maintained.

"That children can lead a very exciting and happy life in a high-rise building," he said years later, "is demonstrated daily in the upper classes on Lake Shore Drive."

Despite the initial harmony achieved at Hilliard, it was still part of the CHA—an increasingly dysfunctional institution.

Wiley says things got really bad toward the end of the 1980s. She remembers a new manager arriving and having the feeling that the CHA had lost interest in the property.

"It started deteriorating," she says. Maintenance calls went unanswered. Heating and water systems malfunctioned. Rats invaded.

Then tenants weren't screened, and "the drug scene came on," she says. Eventually Hilliard, like all the other projects, was besieged by crime.

In 1988 an eight-year-old boy was found hanged in a stairwell with his hands and feet bound. Wiley recalls the incident with a shudder.

"People were scared about that," she says. "People were locking up their kids for months after that because we didn't know what happened." The murder was never solved.

Despite this terrifying episode, Wiley claims the project never had a serious gang problem like other developments. "I'd say about 15 or 20 little boys called themselves a little gang," she says. "I think we did have two killings here, but besides that the only problem we had was drugs. This being a small development made a big difference."

Still, those who could moved out. Vacancy rates crept higher as tenants left without being replaced, and the rental revenue for management and maintenance eroded further. When Wiley became the president of the resident leadership group in the 90s, she lobbied the CHA to close down one of the family buildings altogether and consolidate all the remaining households in the other.

By then public opinion nationwide had turned squarely against high-rise public housing. Chicago's dilapidated projects were seen as proof of the government's "failed experiment" of providing shelter for the poor.

Goldberg hoped Hilliard would offer the same quality of life to poor residents that Marina City did to rich ones. - AIC RYERSON & BURNHAM LIBRARIES
  • AIC Ryerson & Burnham Libraries
  • Goldberg hoped Hilliard would offer the same quality of life to poor residents that Marina City did to rich ones.

Those opinions were bolstered by the growing "New Urbanist" movement of planners and architects who, starting in the 70s, positioned themselves against the tower-in-the-park idea of city living exemplified by Streeterville and the State Street Corridor in favor of more "human-scale" development. Visions of dilapidated public housing projects solidified the notion that architecture and design had set these places up for failure. In 1995 Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin produced a six-part series on New Urbanist improvements to public housing across the country to offer an alternative vision to Chicago's modernist "vertical ghettos." Some of the profiled architectural innovations "enable low-income housing to blend with its surroundings," Kamin wrote. "Others help decrease crime or turn once-nightmarish towers into decent places to live. All provide interiors that lift the spirit instead of crushing it."

In addition, social scientists produced mounting evidence that growing up in segregated communities with high concentrations of poor families severely limited children's future opportunities. "Young blacks who grow up in areas of concentrated poverty are much less likely to learn how to get and keep a job or to advance in school," sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton wrote in American Apartheid, their 1993 study of urban segregation. "Rather, they come to expect a life of joblessness, single parenthood, and welfare dependency."

By the mid-90s this multidisciplinary movement convinced policy makers and politicians that high-rise public housing was a scourge on American cities. Ultimately, city leaders deemd the demolition of high-rise projects the only way forward.

Richard Monocchio, now the director of the Housing Authority of Cook County, came to the CHA in 1995, after years of corruption and mismanagement led HUD to take over the agency.

"We walked into a situation where we really felt we had to do something dramatic to make people's lives better," he said in a recent interview. "It was a really scary time in Chicago back in the mid-90s, and unfortunately the public housing buildings were so distressed and had so much deferred maintenance and the people weren't being helped."

Monocchio still thinks the decision to tear down the overwhelming majority of the city's high-rise public housing developments was the right one. "I personally believe those buildings that were torn down on the State Street Corridor absolutely should have been demolished," Monocchio says. "It was really a failed system—13-, 14-, 15-story high-rises were no places for people to live, especially when you concentrated people in poverty."

Eventually, high-rise projects in Philadelphia, Detroit, Saint Louis, Baltimore, Newark, and elsewhere also came down.

Maner Wiley has lived at Hilliard since it opened 50 years ago. “If I die, build me a little plot right here,” she says. - SUNSHINE TUCKER
  • Sunshine Tucker
  • Maner Wiley has lived at Hilliard since it opened 50 years ago. “If I die, build me a little plot right here,” she says.

The noteworthy exception, however, was New York City, home of the nation's largest concentration of high-rise public housing: 2,600 towers, some as high as 30 stories, with almost half a million residents. These towers were a conspicuously overlooked example of functional projects. As historian Nicholas Dagen Bloom explains in Public Housing That Worked, his study of New York City's projects, they too have problems with vandalism, drugs, and violence. But, Bloom argues, the New York City Housing Authority’s commitment to management and the political impossibility of wholesale demolition kept these buildings livable through the darkest period in the country’s experiment with public housing.

"What distinguished New York from the housing authorities that later adapted New York's high-rise style was administrators who understood the difference between low-cost and shoddy high-rise housing," Bloom writes. "These decently constructed buildings, when paired to sound practices of daily management, have stood the test of time."

By the time of HUD’s takeover in the mid-90s, Hilliard "was just like everything else in CHA—it was pretty much a disaster," Monocchio recalls.

But Hilliard's design pedigree spared it the wrecking ball. "Because of the architecture, there was a definite sense that [the buildings] should be preserved," he explains. Despite the dilapidation, "there was never any thought in our mind of demolishing those buildings."

Joseph Shuldiner, then the head of the CHA, says Hilliard was offered up for sale to private bidders because it was "in tremendous need to upgrade, and there was absolutely no public funds available."

The CHA's offer caught the eye of Peter Holsten, an energetic Chicago developer who'd already garnered a reputation for successfully cobbling together the sophisticated financing packages needed to make affordable housing development affordable for developers too. And Holsten was keen on mixed-income projects, the new federally and locally preferred model of creating subsidized housing.

Holsten had loved fixing things since he was a kid growing up in the western suburbs. He went to college for engineering, and worked construction during the summers. "I always wanted to have my own business," he says now, but after getting an MBA, he took a sales and marketing job in the steel industry. Still, by 1975 he'd amassed enough savings to buy his first fixer-upper, a small apartment building in Albany Park he renovated during evenings and weekends.

Holsten says his financial limitations in those early years kept his real estate acquisitions to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods where he was catering to people who "didn't have a lot of options for good housing." Providing a place to live and social services to low-income families also appealed to his concerns with social justice.

"As a young person, I saw people discriminated against in all sorts of ways, and that was a lump in my stomach," he says. The contrast between his white, middle-class neighborhood and the decrepit slums along the south-side railroad lines he'd regularly pass as he traveled to see family in New York bowled him over.

"There would be kids playing in the rubble close to the line," he recalls. "It just made me sad."

Today, Holsten owns about 3,000 housing units across 14 properties, ranging from single-room occupancies to mixed-income developments. While two of these, in the Cabrini-Green area, are New Urbanist-style town-house complexes, he's always been more interested in the restoration of architectural gems such as the Belle Shore Apartment Hotel in the Bryn Mawr historic district and the Strand Hotel in Woodlawn. His glitzy rehabs of these stately structures as affordable housing have him dubbed "the anti-gentrifier."

And so it was Hilliard's unique look that caught Holsten's eye in the late 90s. Three of his four children had been born at the now-demolished Goldberg-designed Prentice Women's Hospital, so he had a soft spot for the architect's work. Taking a closer look at the Hilliard site, he saw potential.

"The uniqueness of [the buildings], the good location—with all the market-rate development to the north, all the McCormick Place development to the east—we could actually do mixed-income here and it would work," Holsten says. And he knew that the property had potential to get on the National Register of Historic Places, which would make it eligible for valuable tax credits meant to support the rehab of historically significant buildings.

Peter Holsten, who purchased Hilliard from the CHA in 1999, believes the key to maintaining high-rise buildings for low-income families is vigilant management. - MAYA DUKMASOVA
  • Maya Dukmasova
  • Peter Holsten, who purchased Hilliard from the CHA in 1999, believes the key to maintaining high-rise buildings for low-income families is vigilant management.

Wiley still remembers the day she met Holsten. "The head janitor called us and said 'We got two white men out here walking the property.'" She was curious and introduced herself as a resident leader. After that meeting, she had a good feeling. "I fell in love with Peter," she says, describing Holsten as the development's knight in shining armor. "He really cared about Hilliard."

Like Wiley, then-CHA head Shuldiner had a great first impression of Holsten. "He clearly was somebody who appeared to care about the buildings architecturally and was interested in serving the people who were there," he says, adding that while the idea of a "compassionate developer" is normally an oxymoron, Holsten seemed to fit the bill.

On New Year's Eve 1999, with all the financial and contractual matters settled, Holsten completed the takeover of Hilliard. His company now owned the buildings and had a 99-year lease on the CHA's land. As the clock struck midnight, he heard gunfire ring out across the development.

"Apparently that was a tradition in the public housing projects, that New Year's Eve everybody shot off their gun," Holsten says. "Our staff was ducking for cover under tables and stuff, not really knowing what to expect."

Holsten says it became clear that some of the tenants had to be evicted. "We did that process and got out of here a handful of people that were causing a lot of trouble," he says. "We brought in security and set up checkpoints so that people from the outside couldn't get in unless they were authorized."

He also set about making $100 million worth of repairs and renovations: central air and heating, expanded apartments in the family towers, new landscaping, remodeled community spaces on the roofs of the senior buildings, and all-new appliances in kitchens and laundry rooms. Like Goldberg, Holsten believes that people of lesser means should not be confined to substandard homes.

Wiley notes with satisfaction that virtually no residents were displaced from the site by the renovations. When the rehab was complete in October 2006, the Tribune echoed the ecstatic reviews of 40 years prior, announcing that Hilliard now felt "like a school campus."

Unlike Holsten's other mixed-income properties, which include public housing, "affordable" (i.e., tax-credit financed), and market-rate units, Hilliard was maintained as public and affordable housing for seniors and families, without the market-rate component. Today all Hilliard households earn below 60 percent of area median income, which means that a household of three makes less than $41,580 annually.

To qualify, residents have to pass a criminal background check, which Holsten says focuses on convictions for serious offenses, though a lengthy recent arrest record will also raise a red flag. "We do look at the nature of crimes and how far back they were," he explains. "We try to give the prospect the benefit of the doubt whenever possible."

Holsten also screens for past money judgments, such as court-order payment of debts. And unlike in CHA's public housing, there's an annual drug screening to remain lease-compliant at Hilliard, as well as at Holsten's other rental properties.

The nonelderly, nondisabled residents of the development today are mostly working families, just as they were 50 years ago. However, there are fewer children at Hilliard now than when it opened: just 200 kids under 18 live in the family towers, with 304 adults.

"That's a normal number of children," Hunt says, explaining that this ratio is reflective of America's shrinking family sizes.

Nevertheless the development contains a concentration of low-income residents living in high-rise buildings. Though this has come to be seen as a recipe for disaster in housing­policy circles, a stroll through Hilliard today makes it seem like a utopia.

Though she likes the peace and quiet of life at Hilliard, resident Jocelyn Trotter wonders whether its strict rules are necessary. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Though she likes the peace and quiet of life at Hilliard, resident Jocelyn Trotter wonders whether its strict rules are necessary.

On a sunny weekday in August, seniors lounge on benches and wicker chairs under lush trees. In the community center, some play cards while others work out in the fitness room. Most of the people around the development are either Chinese or African-American. Wiley says everyone gets along, but folks tend to socialize among their own groups for the most part. As she strolls the grounds she stops to catch up with residents. “This is my dream,” she says. “I love Hilliard.”

Every inch of the property brings up memories for her. She met her husband here, raised six kids, and fostered many others. She recalls how in the project's early years the fire department would fill the amphitheater with water to make a swimming pool in the summer. She points out a concrete turtle with chipping orange paint that she made sure was saved during Holsten's renovation. "I wouldn't let them get rid of my turtle," she says with a laugh. "This is where I got my first real rear-end whupping from my parents, 'cause I kissed a boy up on this turtle."

Wiley says she still feels the same pride in the property as she did when she was younger. She recalls taking the State Street bus from downtown and seeing the curiosity in people's faces as the bus pulled up to Cermak Road. "When I was getting ready to get off the bus I was spreading my wings like a peacock because it was so unique," she says. "The buildings, they draw you to them."

"I make everybody laugh because I say if I die, build me a little plot right here," she adds. "I love Hilliard just that much."

Later that month Holsten strolled the grounds, periodically stopping for long chats with residents who quickly recognized him. For him there's no inherent reason why poor families with kids or the elderly can't live in high-rise buildings. Neither does he buy into the notion that design has much to do with a property's success. "It's all management," he says. "If you have the resources that are required, if you have the law on your side—that you're allowed to screen and select residents that you feel will be successful in that atmosphere—and you're allowed to carry out the established principles of property management, I think [high-rises for low-income residents] can be managed." (In recent years residents of mixed-income developments have filed lawsuits challenging drug-testing policies.)

There are 18 staff members working at Hilliard, from clerical workers to resident activity managers to maintenance personnel. Holsten adds that, in addition to the staff who are on the property every day, he periodically has an outside staffer walk through to identify problems that might go unnoticed by people used to seeing them. He also makes sure management works with tenants on any behavioral problems or other lease noncompliance, which "heads off small tenant problems that would become big tenant problems." He says they try their best to refrain from evictions, but that's not always possible.

Holsten ascends to the third floor of a family building in an elevator equipped with a security camera. There, in the open-air gallery, he pauses to clear bags of trash that have clogged up the garbage shoot. Later, while touring an empty model unit, he picks a dead mouse off the floor with his bare hands. This sort of vigilance is needed "every day, day after day, seven days a week," as Holsten puts it. "If you do that, you really can manage any building."

But there's also a restrictive side to Holsten's management at Hilliard, which raises the question of whether stricter rules are necessary to make high-rise housing for the poor work.

Jocelyn Trotter has lived in a first-floor unit in one of the family towers for 14 years. Her apartment smells pleasantly of incense and is filled with photos of her five children and 24 grandchildren.

Trotter spent more than 20 years living in the Robert Taylor Homes, losing one 17-year-old son to gun violence. Her sister lived in Hilliard when it was still a CHA property, and she remembers coming to visit. "Back in the day this was a mess—drugs, gangs, fighting, shooting, killing," she says, "but since they did it over it's real nice down here—no shooting, no gangbanging, no none of that. It's peaceful."

Like Wiley, she attributes the environment to good management. But Trotter is ambivalent about some of the rules: there's a 9 PM curfew in the park; kids aren't allowed to trick-or-treat at the property; and there's a $100 fee for renting the community room ($50 of which is returned if the room is left clean).

Holsten says that the playground and basketball courts are closed in the evening for noise abatement, and trick or treating was disallowed due to resident complaints. Similar rules exist in affluent high-rise communities. A representative for the Downtown Apartment Company, which manages luxury high-rises, confirmed that plenty of buildings close outdoor spaces like rooftop gardens and pools in the evenings, and that paying to use community rooms is common.

But whether these rules are onerous or helpful in a low-income development is a matter of perspective.

Residents of the development today are elderly, and working families, just as they were 50 years ago. - ORLANDO CABANBAN/AIC RYERSON & BURNHAM LIBRARIES
  • Orlando Cabanban/AIC Ryerson & Burnham Libraries
  • Residents of the development today are elderly, and working families, just as they were 50 years ago.

Trotter recalls the sense of community she felt at Robert Taylor with a warm smile. "Everybody knew everybody," she says. "They still was fighting each other, but everybody knew everybody. It was like a family down there." Though she loves living at Hilliard, she says she mostly keeps to herself indoors, and can't shake the feeling that "it's like we're in jail somehow."

Wiley, on the other hand, sees the rules as part of community building. "Over 90 percent [of people] always abide by the rules here at Hilliard because we want to live in a safe, decent environment," she says. "If we as adults break the rules, what do you expect the kids to do?"

Holsten says management can get pretty tough on young people if there's word of fighting or drug use. "We don't do anything illegal," he explains, "but it's like, 'Hey, stop this shit, this is not acceptable,' and in talking to teenagers, we'll basically tell them, 'If this keeps going on, your mother is at risk of losing her apartment. Is that what you want?'"

The move to stricter rules for public housing residents is also evident in CHA's remaining properties—where contracted management companies provide tight security and CCTV cameras abound—and throughout mixed-income developments. University of Chicago sociologists have documented that the rules governing the use of communal spaces in mixed-income communities can lead to a sense of social isolation among the lowest- income residents, as Trotter described. But Holsten has tried to mitigate this at Hilliard by providing structured activities. Residents' feelings of isolation is something "we're always very concerned about," he says.

The architecture and design of modernist public housing buildings seen as "warehouses" for the poor have been blamed for years for the inhumane conditions in the projects. But Hilliard's history shows that poor social planning and management can lead to the dilapidation of even the most well-designed properties, just as good management is critical to ensuring their success. For some, Holsten's success with Hilliard signals that, as Goldberg once argued, there's nothing antithetical about high-rise living for low-income families. After all, Holsten is maintaining an aesthetically pleasing, multigenerational, racially integrated community for poor people in a high-rise superblock, just as Goldberg wanted.

Hilliard's success also raises the question of whether it might be possible to try high-rise public housing again—but this time, do better. For many people who remember the high-rise project dystopia well, outsiders and residents alike, this idea is a nonstarter. Others say this is only possible if public housing is in private hands, like Holsten's. In Chicago as elsewhere, there's an obvious trend in the privatization of public housing: Over the last 15 years the CHA has increasingly withdrawn from its role as a landlord. Most of Chicago's former public housing residents now rent in the private market with Section 8 vouchers. They continue to live in some of the most segregated and impoverished areas of the city, farther than ever from the amenities and opportunities of downtown. And because most vouchers are tied to individuals, and not their apartments, they do little to assure long-term housing stability.

But Holsten is the first to say that the principles of good property management are universal. As the early history of Hilliard proves, if the political will and the money are there, the government can do it too. Hilliard stands between a growing forest of luxury downtown skyscrapers and the segregated private rental market of the south side like a beacon, signaling that if ever we wanted to reconsider what housing we may owe the least fortunate in our society—and how we can built it—a tower in a park may still be an answer.  v


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