This documentary (written about earlier here) is a fascinating look at the ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis but it also speaks more broadly to public housing in general in the United States. A few thoughts about the documentary:
1. The documentary tries to tell a comprehensive story about why Pruitt-Igoe failed. The argument is that is was not about bad residents or poor architectural design: the project was built as part of a system that is set up to fail where the government supported suburban growth after World War II, white flight out of cities like St. Louis, a flood of poorer residents to northern cities looking for jobs, urban business interests looking to clear slums and open up development opportunities, a shift away from an urban industrial economy, and issues of race and segregation throughout. In other words, this is a complex issue and simply eliminating public housing or building better developments don’t effectively address all of the relevant concerns.
2. This contains a great mix of archival photos, video clips, and interviews with former residents. I wish more of these images of cities and public housing from the 1950s and 1960s were readily available.
3. There is an interesting section on control over the residents of the projects. For example, the documentary says men were not allowed to live in the projects in the early days for women with children to get aid money. Therefore, a new generation of children in the projects lived without fathers and male figures. Additionally, early residents were not allowed to have television sets.
4. The documentary effectively shows the hope present at the beginning of such projects. For many of the early residents, this was a step up from tenements. These projects were not failures from day one. The repeated pictures of the projects with the gleaming St. Louis Arch in the distance drives this point home. Additionally, one resident repeatedly tells of good moments in her life while living as a kid in the projects.
5. While the film is directly about St. Louis, this is a story repeated in numerous other American big cities. The Chicago story doesn’t seem too different: the projects were built on land civic and business leaders chose, the projects were a step up from tenement living, and within several years the projects became incredibly segregated, rundown, and the social problems began to spiral out of control.
6. There is one issue that the film doesn’t tackle: why exactly did this one project get torn down and not notorious projects in St. Louis and other cities? Why, for example, did it take until the 1990s and the HUD’s HOPE VI program for projects like the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green (the last building demolished just last year) to be demolished? There is clearly more to the story here in St. Louis as well as elsewhere: as the projects experienced more problems, why did it take decades to do something about it? (I’m not suggesting here that demolishing the projects was necessarily the best way to go. As the film briefly asks, what happened to all of those people who left?)
In the end, this would be a great film to show in class to discuss public housing and related issues of urban development, race and class, and public policy.