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New documentary sheds light on the story of Pruitt-Igoe

Partially demolished Pruitt-Igoe (Daniel Magidson)
Partially demolished Pruitt-Igoe (Daniel Magidson)

The Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis was once considered the template for post-war public housing, a national model.  For awhile it was—until it wasn’t.  The high rise complex was constructed in 1954.  Two decades later, and by then notorious, Pruitt-Igoe was a pile of rubble, imploded and bulldozed into history. What went wrong and why?  That’s the subject of a new documentary film called The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: an Urban History.   Directed by Chad Freidrichs, the film will have its St. Louis premiere this Saturday at the Missouri History Museum.

Freidrichs joined host Don Marsh, the Missouri History Museum’s Jody Sowell, and former Pruitt-Igoe resident and journalist Sylvester Brown today on St. Louis on the Air.  You can hear their entire conversation in the St. Louis on the Air Archive, but in the meantime, some highlights:

A massive failure?

Don Marsh:   When you talk about The Pruitt-Igoe “Myth,” What is the myth?

Chad Freidrichs:  When people talk about Pruitt-Igoe, often they tend to talk about Pruitt-Igoe in a very over-simplified way.   That’s really the myth we’re dealing with here.  Pruitt-Igoe as this very simplified notion of a failure, either from an architectural vantage point, or as a failure because it was a federal public housing project, or it was a failure because of the people who lived there.  As we talked to residents more and more, it’s something we began to question quite a bit, the idea of Pruitt-Igoe being simply a failure.  It’s something that had many positive elements to it.

Don Marsh:  Was it a total failure in your mind, Sylvester?

Sylvester Brown:  No, no.  In architecture schools, in the media, it’s defined as a failure.  But what that leaves out is the human element.  In my mind, Pruitt-Igoe represents the resilience of the predominately African American residents that lived there.  Through all the poverty and all the crime, they kept finding ways to create and recreate and save and protest.  Pool their money so that they could fix things.  They watched out for each other.  There was a wonderful smell on Sunday mornings...of all these families, of all these old southern dishes marinating through the hallways.  Chad captures that.  He captures that these were really people.  There was history there.  There was music there.  There was culture there.

The crime and the poverty and the despair and the hopelessness was real.  In fact when we moved there, as a six year old, I realized that this was a different place than where I had lived, and I had lived in many ghettos.   But this was a different kind of environment.  But we shouldn’t let the welfare, and the crime and the social condition define what Pruitt-Igoe was.  It was much more than that.

Jody Sowell:  It’s those residents’ stories that really resonate with people—that do tell the stories of Sunday dinners, of Christmas, of playing music out in the hallways--stories that we don’t often hear when we hear the stories of PI, stories that are much more common when we hear oral histories or ethnography.  Often time when we tell the story of history, it gets simplified.  And the story of Pruitt-Igoe has been simplified to an unbearable agree.

The road to Pruitt-Igoe and high rise public housing

Don Marsh:  What were conditions like immediately after WWII when all these people were coming from the South to St. Louis to find jobs?

Jody Sowell: It’s not just St. Louis.  St. Louis is part of the national urban story.  Cities were still growing after WWII, but were very concerned about starting to lose their populations.  This really shakes city leaders and worries them that the cities will start draining out.  They want to find a way to keep people in the city, to clear slums, to house the poor.  This sort of high rise public housing was one answer that they came up with, not just to house the poor, but to make other areas of the city cleaned out so that they could keep a certain base.

Audio from The Pruitt-Igoe Myth featuring Professor Robert Fishman:  You really had these people called slum lords who took advantage of the fact that the poor had to live in the center of cities close to where their jobs were.  You had acres and acres of housing that was unsafe and unsanitary…. The slum lords knew that they could just jam as many people as possible into it.  It was a very profitable system, but it was also completely destructive, not just for the people who were stuck in the slums, but for the whole urban community.  And there was a despair that private enterprise could ever deal with this issue. The essence of public housing was that public sector could do a better job.  People who had been living where they literally never saw the sun, now they would have more magnificent views than the richest people in St. Louis.  It enabled the most disadvantaged people in our cities to be liberated from the slums.

Don Marsh: Sylvester, do you remember arriving at Pruitt-Igoe and what you thought?

Sylvester Brown:  I remember the sense of excitement when we moved into Pruitt-Igoe.  You had the built-in kitchens.  You had enough rooms---my mother had eleven kids, there were eight of us at that time---for us to double up or triple up in a room, which was better than what we'd had.  So there was a sense of excitement.  We liked the sense of newness, of modernism.  But that quickly changed.

A shifting demographic, rising crime, and stagnating maintenance

Sylvester Brown: The first clue that I got was that my mother told us we needed to always travel in groups.  We needed to always look out for our sisters.  We needed to stand on the stairwells and make sure that our sisters came from the 1st floor to the 10th floor.   My mother insisted that we fight.  I remember my brother and I, we were attacked by some young hoodlums…my mother insisted that we fight them.  She explained that this was a place where you should not be taken advantage of.  You’ve got to set a reputation.  It’s just a different culture, a different way of living.  We started seeing these men who didn’t live at Pruitt-Igoe hang around at Pruitt.  I saw my first yellow tape, where someone had been killed, on the way to school.  It was just a different a whole strange, different, artificial environment.

Around 1959, crime really started to escalate within Pruitt-Igoe.  That year they’d hired watchmen with German Shepherds to patrol the area.     When we moved there, I guess the crime was already escalating, but when we left, it was off the chain.

Don Marsh:  What caused this to happen?

Chad Freidrichs:  It’s tough to say precisely what caused the crime to rise in Pruitt-Igoe.  I tend to view that rise as in correlation with the rise that was taking place in the city.  So whenever I think about crime or vandalism in Pruitt-Igoe, I always like to imagine the conditions across the street in Jefferson Avenue.  If you were to walk across Jefferson in the late 1960s, I think you would have seen similar levels of poor maintenance and crime, sometimes higher rates.  I think the rise in crime reflects rates in the city overall.

Jody Sowell:  Another thing that residents have talked about is that not all the crime that was committed at Pruitt-Igoe was committed by “Pruitt-Igoeans.” Oftentimes people would come from the outside to Pruitt-Igoe. While it was always labeled a Priutt-Igoe problem, it was a citywide problem. 

Don Marsh: The maintenance really became an issue for the people that were living there at the time.  Things were not well maintained?

Sylvester Brown: This was a federal project.  But it was built under the theme of segregation.  Pruitt was for blacks.  Igoe was for whites.  During the midst of this, (segregation in) housing was ruled unconstitutional.  The original vision for Pruitt-Igoe was beautiful.  It was based on this beautiful vision of greenery and open roads that connected the project to the city.  They weren’t all supposed to be these high rises.  They were supposed to be mid-level buildings.  After (segregated) housing, was ruled unconstitutional,  some of the money went away.  Some went toward the Korean War.  The formula for maintaining the project was never established. When it was first opened, you had many middle class African Americans that were living there.  Within a few years, you started to have people surviving on public assistance and 70-80% of their income went towards rent.

Jody Sowell:  And while the federal government would help to build Pruitt-Igoe, they would not help maintain it.  That was up to the local housing agency that had to rely on the rent of the people living there, clearly not enough to keep up the maintenance. 

Don Marsh: What was the role of the St. Louis Housing Authority?

Chad Freidrichs: Looking at the situation the housing authority was in, they were in a very tight spot.   The federal law that created federal housing basically specified that the rental incomes were supposed to maintain and operate the projects.  As the population of Pruitt-Igoe became progressively poorer, you had fewer funds to do this maintenance.  The housing authority was caught in a bind where they simply couldn’t afford to do it.  They had to raise rents.  People move out because of that…It was downward spiral.

The real culprit here for me is an unresponsive federal government.  The initial legislation assumed a certain kind of city, a certain population living in Pruitt-Igoe, a certain income level.  As that changed over time, there was no attempt by the feds to step in and change those rules.

Jody Sowell:  Just as important was how the story of the maintenance gets told.  It was rare that you heard that this was a structural, governmental problem.  No, this was a problem of the people who lived there who couldn’t take care of the place where they lived.   The residents felt very saddled with those stereotypes even though clearly the problem was much bigger.

Now, almost 40 years later, a film…

Don Marsh:  Chad, why did you get into this project?

Chad Freidrichs:   Well the initial motivation was an architectural one.  Pruitt-Igoe is very well known in arch circles as the “death of modern architecture. ”  That has much to do with that very famous image of the Pruitt-Igoe implosion.  Just looking at it, it conjures up ideas of failure.   So this is one of those instances where you enter a project thinking it’s going to be one way and then it turns out to be something completely different.  As we did more and more research, we discovered how tightly integrated Pruitt-Igoe was into the overall history of St. Louis.  Ultimately, that’s what our focus in this film was, was the changes that were taking place in the city, in the American city, as well as in St. Louis in the post war years.

Jody Sowell: Chad talked about how well known it is in architecture circles, and that’s true worldwide. People around the world study this particular project.  What has amazed me in the last few years, I often teach college classes, and I will ask the students, most of them from St. Louis, how many have heard of Pruitt-Igoe.  Out of a class of twenty, mostly St. Louisans, one or two will raise their hands. It’s quickly being erased from our public memory and I think that’s dangerous.

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