A new documentary about urban life that was released yesterday may just be worth seeing: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. The film has been reviewed by a number of outlets (including a short review in the New York Times) but here is a longer description in Architectural Record:
Accepted wisdom will have us believe St. Louis’ infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing development was destined for failure. Designed by George Hellmuth and World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki (of Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth), the 33-building complex opened in 1954, its Modernist towers touted as a remedy to overcrowding in the city’s tenements. Rising crime, neglected facilities, and fleeing tenants led to its demolition—in a spectacular series of implosions—less than two decades later. In the popular narrative, bad public policy, bad architecture, and bad people doomed Pruitt-Igoe, and it became an emblem of failed social welfare projects across the country. But director Chad Freidrichs challenges that convenient and oversimplified assessment in his documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, opening in limited release January 20.
He makes a compelling case. Drawing heavily on archival footage, raw data, and historical reanalysis, the film reorients Pruitt-Igoe as the victim of institutional racism and post-war population changes in industrial cities, among other issues far more complex than poor people not appreciating nice things. But while Freidrichs opens a new vein for discussing Pruitt-Igoe, he doesn’t totally dispel the titular myth about it. There’s a passing mention of the project’s failure being one of Modernist planning, that such developments “created a breeding ground for isolation, vandalism, and crime.” And of course there’s an invocation of Charles Jencks’ famous declaration that the death of Pruitt-Igoe was “the death of Modernism.” But Freidrichs never adequately addresses Pruitt-Igoe’s place in the history of urban design.
But even if The Pruitt-Igoe Myth falls short of its stated goal, it’s nevertheless exceptional. In an important act of preservation, Freidrichs captures the voices and memories of five former Pruitt-Igoe residents. They tell stories of jubilation when they’re assigned an 11th floor apartment (their “poorman’s penthouse”) and when they see rows upon rows of windows bejeweled with Christmas lights. They share horrific tales of siblings murdered and living in constant fear of who lurks in the shadows. They remember how the welfare office told them they couldn’t have a phone or a television, and how their husbands and fathers weren’t allowed to live with them.
Nearly 40 years after its destruction, the people interviewed for the film continue to wrestle with Pruitt-Igoe’s legacy and its place in their lives. They love it and hate it, but don’t resent it. Despite the piles of trash, mountains of drugs, and preponderance of crime, this was their home. For some, it was their first proper dwelling. They cared deeply about Pruitt-Igoe and still do, even in its current form—a largely overgrown lot roved by feral dogs. Pruitt-Igoe is fundamentally a part of them, and by sharing their memories they obliterate the part of the myth that says it was undone by its people.
Something that just came to mind while reading a few reviews: why was Pruitt-Igoe blwn up so quickly while other notorious housing projects, like several in Chicago, lasted three decades longer? There has to be some interesting local twists to this story.
In an era where high-rise public housing projects are rare if not all gone because of the Hope VI program, it will be interesting to see how these housing complexes are preserved in American history. Will they simply be seen as failures? What will the lessons be?
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