The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

Film Review: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)

In 1954, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project opened in the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood just north of downtown St. Louis. Covering 57 acres and consisting of 33 high-rise structures of 11 stories each, the project was initially hailed as an architectural marvel – the perfect marriage of design and public policy. Within a few years of opening, conditions at Pruitt-Igoe began to unravel, and every effort to salvage the project failed. In 1972, three of the buildings were infamously imploded, and in 1976, the remaining structures were also demolished, leaving behind an urban wasteland that has yet to be redeveloped.
Pruitt-Igoe was a colossal failure, and as so often happens with success and defeat, the stated reason evolved into an overly simplistic explanation that, after many retellings, became the agreed upon “truth.” As the myth goes, Pruitt-Igoe failed due to poor design. High-modernism was the culprit, and the attack came, surprisingly, from the architectural community itself – from competing dogmas that completely ignored the social, economic, and political forces at work.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a fascinating documentary directed by Chad Freidrichs, cracks open the legend of this disaster and uncovers a complex web of causes that build, one on top of the other, until failure seems inevitable.
With a wealth of archival film footage and photographs, Freidrichs paints a picture of post-war conditions in St. Louis slums reminiscent of the work of Jacob Riis. Slumlords got rich preying on the working poor with over-crowded, ramshackle housing that was often devoid of plumbing or water. As the slums grew and threatened to spread into the central business district, merchants and politicians in St. Louis sprang into action, hoping to stem the tide, but a conservative political climate made urban renewal projects difficult to finance.
The United States Housing Act of 1949 created the opportunity that politicians sought, and soon, a plan was underway to redevelop a 57 acre tract of land just north of downtown. In 1950, the St. Louis Housing Authority awarded design of the new housing project to Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth (Minoru Yamasaki would go on to design the World Trade Center). The Pruitt-Igoe myth presupposes that the architects who designed Pruitt-Igoe had free reign to mold the project to their collective social philosophy. The truth is there were many government imposed design constraints – financial limitations, density parameters, the number of units, and the number of buildings and stories – that forced the firm to abandon its original vision for the project.
The true strength of the film lies in the interviews conducted with about a half-dozen former residents of Pruitt-Igoe, and what’s interesting is the disparity of their recollected experiences, which ranged from nostalgic to pragmatic to rueful. A woman who lived on the top floor of one building refers to her apartment as a “poor man’s penthouse.” And even with the passing of years and all the bad things that happened after she moved in, she remains grateful to have lived there. Another recalls the fights he endured and his retreat to a nearby vacant lot where he could study bugs and plants.
In the current political climate, the subject of public housing sparks wildly converging viewpoints (again with the over-simplifying), and Pruitt-Igoe both confirms and debunks the stereotypes of public housing, showing us that the truth lies somewhere in-between.
In the first years of the project, pride of ownership and a sense of community were common, but as a complex domino effect of economic, social, and political forces impacted St. Louis – white flight fueled by governmental incentives to develop the suburbs, declining funds to properly maintain the project, and wrong-headed policy – that initial ray of hope evaporated into crime and violence with frightening speed until it was finally done away with.
Freidrichs does a fine job of illustrating the complexity of the failure of Pruitt-Igoe without preaching. And in debunking the Pruitt-Igoe myth, he debunks the myth of the failure of public housing everywhere. St. Louis and Pruitt-Igoe become a stand-in for most American cities because what happened there was repeated throughout the country, if on a smaller scale. What becomes clear is that the oft-repeated liberal and conservative takes on the subject are over-simplistic and wrong.
Whatever the reason, there will likely always be poor people in our society, and The Pruitt-Igoe Myth invites us into thoughtful debate over the role of government in assisting the poor of America, nudging us to let go of the tired old myths that have left us all stranded.

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