The Pruitt-Igoe housing project was open for business in 1954, completed in 1956, and destroyed in 1972. It then took four years to knock down the 33 buildings of the modernist development, which had been clustered together a bit northwest of downtown St. Louis in Le Corbusier fashion. The Pruitt-Igoe footprint is now an unexpected green space at Cass and Jefferson, St. Stanislaus church still there across the way.
The publicity campaign for the project led locals to envision “rivers of trees” guiding residents into common areas beneath these vertical neighborhoods. At first, this evolution of the crumbling DeSoto-Carr slum fulfilled its promise. The slumping 19th century tenements lining the area gave way to a remarkable change in the standard of living for these new residents. The housing authority posed the Pruitt-Igoe as a feat of urban engineering, a way to stop the rapid decline of St. Louis city that left it depopulated by 60% a few decades later. Even though the shadow of the Pruitt-Igoe demise still hovers over north St. Louis, ex-residents speak fondly of riding up the elevators for the first time to their brand new homes, children playing in the courtyards below among newly planted flowers.
But something went terribly wrong, and the Pruitt-Igoe Myth attempts to track various explanations for this very public failure of urban planning. By 1965, vacancy was at 30%. By 1971, six hundred people occupied the entire development, much of which was boarded up or pitted by decay and vandalism. By this time, descriptions of the Pruitt-Igoe read a lot like Ballard’s High-Rise, drug dealers holed up in squalid eleventh floor kingdoms, the constant threat of violence – an island in the city abandoned by basic civil and municipal services.
People offer different reasons for the Pruitt-Igoe collapse. The initial build was marred by cost overruns and material shortages, leading to a poor build quality. Housing was desegregated in 1956, contributing to white flight – a cancer that continues to eat at St. Louis city and county. Cutbacks in funding led to poor maintenance. The elevators stopped working, incinerators couldn’t handle the volume of trash, landscaping gave way to concrete and asphalt. The ordinance that fathers could not reside with families on public welfare created a fatherless space in which kids grew up disconnected from that formative presence. One person interviewed for the documentary would see white families in suburban homes on TV and thought that only white kids got to have dads.
The bulk of the documentary considers all these reasons for failure, interviewing historians and experts in urban planning. It does a masterful job at splicing these conversations with the memories of former residents and archival footage evoking the specter of segregation that permeates this historical timeline. As a citizen of this fair city, it was shocking to hear the plainly stated racism of 1950s suburban housewives. Even if this racism still lurks quietly in our real estate market, one particular archival blip left our diverse audience at Fontbonne University stunned. It is hard for us to hear this in St. Louis.
St. Louis history is one of my hobbies. As the Gateway City, we are an icon of American commerce and transience that has expressed itself in a century of social expansions and contractions. (In one contraction, an entire baseball team disappeared. In another, an entire brewery.) Lying in the wake of these constant transitions are leafy, red-brick neighborhoods with long-standing cultural identities. They are scattered in rows of bungalows and terraces around the grand expanse of Forest Park and spread north and south down to the bank of the river. Dotted with pools and parks, the suburbs now hide the paths of trade and industry that once spooled out west toward the rivers in the county. St. Louis is a great place to walk.
But the Pruitt-Igoe myth persists in all these stories we St. Louisans tell ourselves about why one can pass city block after block through abandoned or forgotten city spaces marked by the industries and demographics of the past. There are any number of economic and social explanations for this slow urban defeat, but they are all ultimately symptoms of reliance on a greater myth hiding in plain sight: a city cannot social engineer itself out of economic and structural decay. The documentary doesn’t really provide an alternative to this myth, but it certainly forces us to see it for what it is.