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?

Still a few residents who are choosing to stay longer at Cabrini-Green

The notorious housing project known as Cabrini-Green is nearly gone. Due to plans begun in the 1990s, nearly all of the buildings have been torn down. But one building, at 1230 N. Burling, is still occupied and today, a few residents said they wanted to stay longer even though the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) wanted to move them out:

CHA spokeswoman Kellie O’Connell-Miller acknowledged that a court-approved, 180-day notice for the residents to leave the Near North Side housing complex does not expire until Jan 4, 2011. But because there were fewer than 10 families remaining in the building, the CHA and the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council agreed that they would try to speed up the relocation, she said.

O’Connell-Miller would not say exactly how many families still lived in the building. Richard Wheelock, housing supervisor at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, which represents the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council, said five to seven families were in the building at the start of the day, but two families refused to leave because they objected to the accommodations they were offered…

Legally, there was no order forcing people out today, but the CHA and the LAC had worked to speed up the relocation for safety reasons, O’Connell-Miller said.

I can imagine that some people would ask, “Why in the world would people want to stay in a near empty building, let alone the last occupied one in the Cabrini-Green project?”

The article hints at one reason: the new accommodations for those moved out of Cabrini-Green might not be any better. This has been one of the sticking points since demolitions efforts were announced in the 1990s: where exactly would these public housing residents be moved? A small number could qualify for new mixed-income housing built on or near the Cabrini site, some might be moved to other public housing projects in Chicago or given Section 8 vouchers to use with private housing, and then some simply disappeared from the public housing rolls. But overall, there was not enough public housing to take in all of the people who would be displaced from Cabrini-Green. Moving out of public housing yet ending up in substandard housing in a hyper-segregated city neighborhood is not necessarily better.

Another issue may play a small role: few people like to be told where or when to move. Even when the conditions aren’t that great, home is home and the home you know might seem better than a new place. Middle-class or upper-class people also don’t like to be told to move when the government exercises eminent domain and those people even get a fair price for their property. These two issues are related: if you feel like you don’t have a choice and your options aren’t very good, moving may be undesirable.

Thinking of all this, we need more media attention on what has happened to these notorious public housing projects like Cabrini-Green or the Robert Taylor Homes. What has happened to the former residents and have their lives been improved? What do these sights look like now and who has benefited from making use of the land?