Quick Review: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

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.

New documentary: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

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?