Public housing has a bad name.Although the reasons for this are complex, a few widely publicized housing projects have created a lasting negative impression in the minds of many Americans. One such project is the Pruitt-Igoe public housing development in St. Louis, Missouri. A famous image, circulated worldwide, of the implosion of one of Pruitt-Igoe’s buildings has come to symbolize the failure of government-sponsored housing and, more broadly, government-sponsorship at large.
Completed in 1954, the 33 11-story buildings of Pruitt-Igoe were billed as the solution to the overcrowding and deterioration that plagued inner city St. Louis. Twenty years later, the buildings were leveled, declared unfit for habitation.
What happened in Pruitt-Igoe has fueled a mythology repeated in discussions of many urban high-rise projects. Violence, crime, and drugs, so the story goes, plagued the housing project from nearly the beginning as it became a “dumping ground” for the poorest city residents. According to one standard account, it was quickly torn apart by its residents who could not adapt to high-rise city life.
Widely circulated images of “Pruitt-Igoe” reveal this legacy. Vandalized hallways. Acres of broken windows. A building imploded. These images of destruction are periodically interrupted by images of a different kind: hopeful images of a massive, newly-built housing complex in the mid-fifties, the scale and grandeur of the buildings reflecting the optimistic spirit out of which Pruitt-Igoe came.
The quick, unexamined transition from hope to disillusionment is the standard structure of the Pruitt-Igoe narrative. But there is another Pruitt-Igoe story, another approach.
It is a story of a city and its residents. A city in many ways at the forefront of postwar urban decline. In the years of Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis lost half of its population and most of its prestige in less than a generation. An analysis of Pruitt-Igoe has to begin in this milieu, and yet it so rarely does.
A more thorough examination of Pruitt-Igoe should take into account the ways in which public housing was used as a tool of racial segregation and as a justification for the clearance of poor and working-class neighborhoods. It should look at the dominant culture of the time, which stressed uniformity and “hygiene” in the domestic sphere, political life, and neighborhood composition. It should question the priorities of the legislation that created large-scale public housing but failed to adequately fund it.
The individual stories of the residents’ struggles and successes have almost universally been ignored; the texture of life in the projects too often reduced to melodrama. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth has, at its heart, the experiences of its residents, adding a human face to a subject that has become so depersonalized.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth tells of a declining city; a suburbanizing nation; a changing urban economy; a hope for the future; and residents who fought back in their own ways, refusing to be passive victims of these larger forces aligned against them.
The documentary has two goals. One is to inform and enhance the ongoing debate over public housing and government welfare programs. The film uses Pruitt-Igoe as a lens through which a larger story about affordable housing and the changing American city can be viewed. It untangles the various arguments about what went wrong in Pruitt-Igoe and dispels the over-simplifications and stereotypes that turned Pruitt-Igoe into a symbol of failure. Second, the film illustrates how conclusions are dangerously and erroneously drawn when powerful interests control debate.
History is a contested space. .Arguments become flattened, rather than expanded, available evidence discarded, rather than sought.
This is why Pruitt-Igoe matters – why we made this documentary. So much of our collective understanding of cities and government and inequality are tied up in these 33 high-rise buildings, informed by the demolition image. Too much of the context has been overlooked, or willfully ignored, in discussions of public housing, public welfare, and the state of the American city.
It’s time to get the facts straight and present the Pruitt-Igoe story in a way that will implode the myths and the stigma. Pruitt-Igoe needs to be remembered and understood in a different way than it has been.
The city will change again, and affordable housing will continue to be an issue. When that happens, the complex lessons of Pruitt-Igoe must be remembered by society and by the architects, developers, and public officials we will task with solving future housing issues.