The Pruitt-Igoe apartments were a place, but they have a greater presence as an epithet. Dynamited by St Louis authorities on live television in 1972, and eventually leveled over next the next four years, the housing projects became a concrete argument against high-rise, high-density public housing, and against spending money on the undeserving poor. The demolition created a mushroom cloud of urban planning textbooks. With it, the nostrums of liberalism and the modernist structures that sheltered its hopes came tumbling down.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History, a new documentary by Chad Friedrichs tries to persuade those willing to listen that things didn’t need to turn out that way. Former residents of the project recall their years in Pruitt-Igoe as some of the best of their lives. The real villains, we hear, were neglect, racism, and abandonment.
Making a film sympathetic to Pruitt-Igoe is a bit like arguing that Jimmy Carter should be president again—well-meaning, perhaps, but not worth serious consideration.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth revisits the late 1940’s in the black and white palette of newsreel to exhume the post-war ideals that set the project in motion. It wasn’t all idealism. Developers supported slum clearance in St. Louis. Employers wanted their labor force to be nearby, especially if the government paid.
Daniel Magidson and Courtesy USGS
For the first few years, shown in nostalgic archival footage, it all went harmoniously. But when budgets came under stress, maintenance suffered. As the buildings deteriorated, the tenants began to leave. Abandonment led to vandalism and more neglect. The projects were stigmatized as a black hole of crime and inexhaustible spending. Few risked defending the place, certainly not politicians seeking re-election.
Academics and former residents rhapsodize about the early days of Pruitt-Igoe. And why not? The slums that were cleared on the site were fetid places. The same choruses agree in the film that the problem at Pruitt-Igoe (and in most public housing) was not overspending but the failure to fund its operations, which doomed it to ruin. Once a place of 33 buildings and 2870 apartments, there were 600 people living there when the fuse was first set in on March 16, 1972.
In St. Louis, other factors were at work. Public housing in Missouri wasn’t legally desegregated until 1954 (when the first building opened), so Pruitt-Igoe (named for a black World War II pilot and a white congressman) was all black. It was easy for white people to fear and for white politicians to scapegoat. With white flight to the suburbs, the once-vibrant city lost population, and the industrial jobs which new arrivals from the rural South expected simply weren’t there. Men were unemployed, and families surviving on welfare were denied benefits if there was a father in the house. The spiral headed downward.
St. Louis, with its relatively tight municipal borders, seemed to be aiming at more than the physical obliteration of what was considered a factory of crime and decay. If the African-American residents of Pruitt-Igoe had their homes leveled, there would be nowhere for them to live in St. Louis. Once out of the projects, they would be out of town, out of sight and out of mind. Abandonment of the residents, the film tells us, seemed a deliberate policy.
Strong in sociology, and edited deftly to keep the film from becoming an earnest lecture, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is not a documentary about architecture. The architect, Minoru Yamasaki, is never named, although we do hear endless versions of the received wisdom that big and modern is bad, especially if taxes pay for it.
Absent from the film are the facts that Yamasaki had originally planned a lower-rise project, at varying heights and higher cost. The plan exceeded federal cost guidelines and the local authority then mandated uniform 11-story buildings, which were more dependent on elevators than the original plan. It cost an over-budget $36 million. Were height and density destiny there? Probably. The film never addresses the fact that a nearby low-rise project remained stable throughout the worst crises of Pruitt-Igoe.
Although sympathetic to the tenants and to the idea of public housing, the documentary does examine the vandalism and violence that became the scourge of Pruitt-Igoe. Former tenants recall how children there developed skills for destroying anything that was constructed to be vandal-proof. The deck was stacked against the mostly poor residents, as we see in footage from a desperate Pruitt-Igoe rent strike, but conditions encouraged their kids to destroy their surroundings. They did, and ended up paying the price.
We hear the emotion in their voices as they look back on Christmas in the project’s early years after families were lifted out of slums or rural shacks for the first time. It’s painful to watch as they describe how their homes became despised and eventually disposable containers. As always, once people are shown to be human, it’s hard for the audience to remain smug.