New documentary ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth’ tells of the rise and fall of America’s most infamous housing project
In only a few decades following the Second World War, American public housing projects from Chicago to Atlanta went into steep decline. Concieved and built largely between the '30s and the '50s, such projects were thought to be a modern, efficient solution to the problems of urban poverty and crime. The reasons this did not prove to be the case were beyond reckoning—bad architecture; lack of opportunity; institutional racism; government overreach—every one of these and more had a hand in turning many low-income developments into social basket cases.
It is impossible to even reasonably assign percentages to each factor, since to do so would be to ignore the intricate causal web that connected one problem to the next, as bigotry begot poverty begot the collapse of human morale in a cascading systemic breakdown.
Nowhere, perhaps, was that cascade more strikingly illustrated than in the now-infamous demolition of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe Houses in 1972. The long-gone housing project rises anew in director Chad Freidrichs’ documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, (showing through Thursday, February 9 at the IFC Center).
In it, the voices of former tenants, along with those of urban experts and historians, combine with archival footage to recount the life and death of the troubled neighborhood and its public housing projects. The filmmakers, sorting through the rubble, turn up new and compelling aspects of the oft-told Pruitt-Igoe story.
Pruitt-Igoe (so named for hometown heroes Wendell O. Pruitt, an African-American WWII fighter pilot, and William L. Igoe, a former U.S. Congressman) was initially conceived in the late ‘40s as one of several projects around St. Louis that, it was hoped, would allow the city to demolish many of its crumbling slum neighborhoods and replace them with modern, efficient, large-scale housing units. Thanks largely to federal funding, work began in 1950 in the depressed DeSoto-Carr section of the city. The firm of Leinweber, Yamasaki and Hellmut was commissioned to design the project (Yamasaki would go on to design the World Trade Center).
Yet at first few moved into the projects, and neglect contributed to a swift decline in the integrity and safety of the community. The Pruitt-Igoe projects, 33 buildings holding nearly 3,000 apartments on a 57-acre site, had begun to deteriorate almost immediately following its completion in 1956, and by the mid- to late-‘60s Pruitt-Igoe had become a byword for just the sort of substandard living conditions, crime, and vandalism it had been built (and acres of slums had been demolished) to prevent. By 1971 it was thought that a mere 600 people occupied the massive project, with many of its buildings completely abandoned and boarded up.
Pruitt-Igoe’s death by dynamite was a televised event seen by millions, and it seemed to confirm the belief by many that the country’s thirty-year experiment with social housing had ended in a complete failure. When the blasts went off, and the great facades prolapsed, few mourned their passing.
But the new film reveals a different side of Pruitt-Igoe. Most surprising, for those who have come to think of the project as a Hobbesian nightmare from day one, is the testimony of some of the its original tenants, who bear witness to the promise of the development in its early days.
“I know a lot of bad things came out of [the project]. I know they did,” says one tenant, Jacquelyn Williams. “But I don’t think they outweighed the good.” Children whose first home was the project, now grown, cherish recollections of Christmas lights strung on balconies, of playground scrapping, and of a new sense of independence and possibility felt by tenants in the early years. The evidence points to a surprising lesson for anyone who cares about cities: in the end, all urban space, even the most dysfunctional, becomes consecrated by memory. (Planners and architects, take note.)
The sad sequel to the project’s happy beginning is related in riveting news reels of leaking pipes, foul hallways, and bleeding bodies. Narrator Jason Henry, reading from Chad and brother Jaime Freidrichs' script, connects the dots between the failures of Pruitt-Igoe, federal policy, the fate of American industry, and the intrigues of the human heart.
In the end, they leave us with this haunting injunction: “The next time the city changes, remember Pruitt-Igoe.” They mean it to refer to St. Louis, but it could apply to anywhere in the United States.