The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

| May 15, 2012

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth tells the story of the transformation of the American city in the decades after World War II, through the lens of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing development and the St. Louis residents who called it home.

For people, both black and white, who were living in the slums of St. Louis in the 1950’s, modernists thought that building a neighborhood that could be perceived as luxury for everyone to live in would be a good idea. And initially it was a good idea—people lived side by side, even calling the projects an “oasis” in the midst of surrounding slums. It certainly was better than places where people had previously lived.

But years later, the tide turned and the development wasn’t as pristine as it once had been. Where there were incinerators to dispose of trash, residents just started to burn trash on the concrete; crime skyrocketed and the buildings were occupied with more single-mother led households, many with more babies on the way. By the end of the 60’s, the buildings were nearly abandoned and the development had deteriorated into a decaying, unsafe, crime-laden neighborhood.

Eventually, the Pruitt-Igoe development couldn’t sustain itself, and nearly 15 years after the first residents moved in, tenants were paying nearly 75 percent of their income for rent. Even with increased rent revenue, the city government couldn’t afford the maintenance and upkeep required to keep the development going—interviews shared on the documentary speak of cold conditions with no heat, broken elevators and garbage strewn hallways—and eventually the remaining residents called a renters’ strike—the first of its kind in the nation.

Shortly afterward, in 1972, the Pruitt-Igoe housing development ended in rubble – its razing an iconic event that the architectural theorist Charles Jencks famously called the “death of modernism.” The footage and images of its implosion have helped to perpetuate a myth of failure, a failure that has been used to critique Modernist architecture, attack public assistance programs, and stigmatize public housing residents.

But I submit, whose fault was it that residents’ pride for the development began to diminish, and all the negative factors manifested themselves into one eruptive cataclysm? Was this the fault of administrators or had the tenants endured enough? The Pruitt-Igoe Myth seeks to set the historical record straight and to examine the interests involved in Pruitt-Igoe’s creation; and to re-evaluate the rumors and the stigma—in other words to “implode the myth,” much like one of the first buildings were imploded on national television so all could see the demise of a dream that meant so much to so many poor, black residents on the North Side of St. Louis.

The documentary suggests that, “It has been easy—too easy—for academics, politicians and interest groups to write off Pruitt-Igoe to bad policy, bad architecture or bad people.” Many interviews are shared; some with urban planning experts who questioned whether demolishing the development was the best solution. It was a “very painful moment of truth to see that failure, a symbol of the perceived failure of a well-intentioned government policy.” One woman said she lived in the “poor man’s penthouse” when she moved to a high floor in the development. Most people recalled happier times, as their families were together and everyone helped each other out. Indeed, there was a sense of community at Pruitt-Igoe.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth has screened at dozens of festivals around the world, includingLos Angeles, True/False, Full Frame, Big Sky and SilverDocs. It won Best Documentary Feature at the Oxford Film Festival and at the Kansas City FilmFest and was recently awarded the International Documentary Association’s ABCNews Videosource Award for best use of archival footage.

Check out The Pruitt-Igoe Myth for yourself and form your own opinions about the reasons behind the failure of something that many looked to as salvation.

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About the Author:

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago. She is the author of "Old School Adventures from Englewood--South Side of Chicago" and the proud parent of "the smart rapper"--chemist-turned-rapper, turned humanitarian...Psalm One!
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