A Legendary Symbol of Unexpected Urban Blight
When the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was built in 1954, the architecturally innovative complex of thirty-three eleven story residential towers was touted as the shining and futuristic solution for cleaning up urban blight and providing premium low cost housing for low income families. People who’d been living in miserable conditions in crumbling buildings without adequate heating and indoor plumbing were thrilled about moving into the new buildings, which promised them a new and better way of life in apartments that were attractive and spacious, and had all the essentials for dwelling in comfort.
Some twenty years later, the entire Pruitt-Igoe complex was declared an inner city housing disaster. The buildings were in terrible condition. There was widespread vandalism. Hallways were covered with graffiti. Windows were broken. There was insufficient heat. Leaks from broken pipes left stagnant pools in the hallways. Many of the apartments had been abandoned by regular tenants and were being used by drug addicts, gangs and indigents.
Eventually, the buildings were completely razed, leaving unsightly and dangerous piles of rubble that were soon covered over by an urban jungle of weeds. The land is still disused.
Throughout The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, footage of the famous Pruitt-Igoe implosion is used repeatedly, creating a memorable core image to serve as a symbol of the sad and unanticipated conclusion to the Pruitt-Igoe story, a story that has taken on the dimensions of urban myth. The documentary is a fascinating study that calls for further investigation about that myth and for consideration about effective urban planning, modern architecture, economic development and local politics.
What happened during the twenty years between the creation of the housing that fulfilled urban dreams and the total destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe project? There is no easy answer to that question. In fact, the Pruitt-Igoe project has been the subject of several serious academic studies, each resulting in a different theory about what lead to the urban dream’s demise.
What Went Wrong?
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth presents several of these theories. One that is widely accepted points to statistics showing that as the years passed, the Pruitt-Igoe complex and surroundings became an isolated inner city black low income ghetto because white middle class residents and most local shops and service providers abandoned the nearby neighborhoods and headed for the St. Louis suburbs.
Another theory points to social stresses caused by pubic housing regulations and restrictions applied to Pruitt-Igoe residents. For example, resident families were torn apart because of a regulation that stipulated that only women who were raising children on their own were eligible for the subsidized housing. That caused husbands and fathers to live apart from their families rather than prevent their wives and children from having a safe and decent place to live. During the day, children were left along in the apartments while their mothers went to work, and at night, the fathers would sneak into their families’ apartments to visit or sleep. The apartments were were closely monitored by authorities who were ready to evict people who didn’t abide by the regulations. This sort of family disruption caused serious social stresses that are reported and analyzed in studies about the Pruitt-Igoe project.
What happened at the Pruitt-Igoe housing project is often cited in arguments against the building of low cost public housing developments. But, to counter that argument, the filmmaker interviews former Pruitt-Igoe residents, showing that they were responsible tenants and were appreciative of the project. They dispel the notion that the people who made their homes in the complex were negligent or destructive, and caused the depreciation of the properties. They certainly cut into the myth that the Pruitt-Igoe project — and by extension, all low income housing projects — was a complete failure.