The recently-released documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, although specifically about a singular St. Louis, Missouri, project, spurs discussion about housing, public policy and modernism. Completed in 1954, this massive 33-building project designed by Minoru Yamasaki is perhaps most famous for its demise—the quite spectacular planned implosion in 1972, less than 20 years after its hailed ribbon-cutting. This graphic event launched many social and political debates and cemented some preconceived ideas. At the time, the most vocal blame was directed at modernism, specifically the International Style, as well as the concept of high-rise public housing, or indeed public housing itself.
Director Chad Freidrichs looks at these facile conclusions and contemporaneous stereotypes to dig into the reason for Pruitt-Igoe’s failure, and surprisingly for this author, architecture is scarcely mentioned. Instead, his movie focuses on the broad scope of urban history and social policy. Through archival photographs and personal “talking head” stories of several residents, he investigates the interlacing forces behind the project. By the time the buildings were torn down, they were beyond repair and few residents remained.
Freidrichs reminds us that post-World War II urban populations left industrialized American cities to follow businesses and factories to outlying areas, encouraged to move by government policies, many of which exacerbated the racial divide. In the 20 years that Pruitt-Igoe existed, St. Louis simultaneously lost 50% of its population. The Federal government also supported the construction of urban renewal projects; however, it did not provide for maintenance, which was to be derived from rents and supported by local government and was not adequately considered. From the beginning, necessary upkeep, ranging from simple garbage collection to repairs to windows and heating systems, was lacking due to mismanagement and shrinking rent rolls.
In addition, restrictive social policy regulations helped create poverty-stricken ghettos. For example, able-bodied men were not allowed to live in an apartment where women received government aid, a rule that tore families apart, created a distrust of government ,and served to further segregate an already highly economically and racially polarized city. This policy was enforced by nighttime searches to find cheaters, further making this housing more like an institution and less like a home.
This film packs its punch, however, not in the dry recounting of government policy and theory, but in the scenes where the residents speak for themselves, directly into the camera. This transforms the movie from an abstract, academic study to a discussion about people’s lives and homes. Those who spoke attested to how happy they were to move there and discussed their fond memories and despair that their home was destroyed. Although contemporaneous social commentaries stated that the 11-story height of the buildings was yet another reason for Pruitt-Igoe’s demise, these former residents remember it as a wonder. One woman recalls the views from her “poor-man’s penthouse” and another can still see in her memory the Christmas lights sparkling in the windows. And yet another remembers playing and riding bikes on the grounds.
The negatives of the project are not glossed over. The development became rife with gangs and drugs. One of the commentators heard his brother get shot and saw him die, an event that haunts him today. Another who became a police officer recalls being bombarded with things thrown from windows when responding to calls at her former home. Images of semi-occupied and or vacant, deteriorated buildings with most of their windows broken and corridors and elevators piled with debris shock an audience unaccustomed to seeing such physical squalor. Even after an hour of watching the movie, the level of decrepitude that these buildings sank into after just 20 years is still hard to understand.
Questions such as how the land was acquired and who previously owned it go unanswered, as was any discussion of whether the lack of ground-floor retail contributed to the unsafe environment. Today, the site contains some schools, with the rest still vacant, vaguely reforested with scrub, off limits except to curious trespassers and a testament to failed promises.