Film Review: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

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The Pruitt-Igoe MythThe Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History is an incredible film. It doesn’t answer a single question about the failure of Pruitt-Igoe.

Maybe that’s why the film is so engrossing. The film sets out to defy conventional wisdom, to refute long-held beliefs, the myths built to define, and absolve us of, the public housing project’s demise: the high rise architecture was to blame, the residents were immoral and didn’t care for their homes, the free market better provides housing for the poor. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth succeeds by not simplifying what is plainly the story of the American city. You leave only understanding that the story of Pruitt-Igoe is more complicated, more personal than you thought before you entered.

While a clear answer may not be offered, a story of unmistakable clarity emerges. Pruitt-Igoe is St. Louis. St. Louis is Pruitt-Igoe. The public housing project failed as the city failed. Built for a post-war St. Louis of 1M people, fewer than 500,000 residents remained as the last of 33 buildings was demolished in 1977. The first tower to be razed was imploded in 1972. In this way, Pruitt-Igoe itself is the screen on which we can view our city’s history.

A full house was on hand last night at the Tivoli Theater to view the film’s second St. Louis screening. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth has been praised at film festivals across the U.S., earning Best Feature Documentary awards at both the Oxford and the Kansas City Film Festivals. Additional screenings are being added regularly and International screenings will soon be scheduled for this fall. Check the film’s website for future screenings.

The film is largely a narrative of life at Pruitt-Igoe as told by former residents. Context of the larger city and nation are added by a narrator. The use of extensive archival film and photos and juxtaposition of varied personal experiences keep the narrative building and the emotions of the viewer swaying from the life affirming experience of growing up in a vibrant community to the hell of living with drugs, murder and fear as a child.

2 pruitt-igoes

When I feel bad, I don’t mean to, but I dream of Pruitt-Igoe. I often wonder if I would have been a nicer person today if I hadn’t lived in Pruitt-Igoe. Both are statements from individuals who lived in Pruitt-Igoe. Reaching a of peak of about 11,000 residents, Pruitt-Igoe was a city within a city. The experience of living there was just as varied as those living elsewhere. There were beautiful moments and terrifying tragedies. In between was a generally hard life. And all the while, the larger city and nation was to dictate the community’s future.

This future was substantially the same as the rest of St. Louis. Living in Pruitt-Igoe or not, the urban poor were displaced and displaced again in the second half of the 20th Century. So called “Urban Renewal” projects pushed African American communities further and further from central cities, just ahead of the bulldozer. In St. Louis, first the central riverfront was cleared, then Chinatown, then the Mill Creek Valley and other communities.

The city was in free fall. Tens of thousands of residents were fleeing across the County line seeking homogenous suburban communities, largely enabled by the 1949 Housing Act. Yes, the film recognizes that welfare policy, federal funding guidelines and more contributed to failure, but within this political and social context, Pruitt-Igoe had to fail. Individual apartment buildings and tenements were failing across the city. If the rest of the city were able to have been removed with several hundred charges of explosives, I have no doubt it would have. But they weren’t has big as Pruitt-Igoe. The demolition of a block of row houses could not be captured in the dramatic fashion of a high rise implosion. And Pruitt-Igoe was billed as the solution to the slums. For the first time, the poor were no longer going to be moved from slum to slum, but from slum to light filled, modern high rise.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

Without a doubt, living conditions in post-war St. Louis were unsafe and unhealthy. This is where the movie starts. Pruitt-Igoe was the answer to a very real and very serious problem. As the film states, families who lived in basements, never having the sun reach their living quarters, families who lacked indoor plumbing, now lived with modern amenities, private bedrooms and natural sunlight. Many residents of Pruitt-Igoe had a better view from their apartment than the wealthiest people of St. Louis.

An answer to current conditions was needed, private enterprise had clearly failed to house the poor, and Pruitt-Igoe was offered as the solution. By accounts in the film, the first years of the development were good ones. Buildings were maintained, security patrolled the grounds and residents were black and white and mixed-income. Then the project was desegregated in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the same year the first residents moved in. White families fled. Middle-class families fled. Again, mirroring the larger city. Tenant rent revenue, declined. The buildings were no longer maintained. The city surrounding Pruitt-Igoe was being abandoned and demolished.

As Pruitt-Igoe failed, glorious public monuments rose within eyesight. Pruitt-Igoe residents Sylvester Brown, Jr. and Valerie Sills, as well as film Director Chad Freidrichs, answered questions and added perspective following the film. An audience member stated that the appearance of the St. Louis Arch in many images helped give him ownership of Pruitt-Igoe and the city’s history. The mention of the Arch touched off other comments.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

The single most iconic image of Pruitt-Igoe is the implosion of a tower with the gleaming Arch in the background, two miles distant. Ms. Sills recounted that as a student she signed the time-capsule placed in the monument’s keystone. In her Pruitt-Igoe apartment she wondered how a city could build something so beautiful while treating its people so poorly: “It serves no purpose. We built a monument to nothing.” The Arch was completed in 1965 as the housing project descended into decay. Freidrichs noted that the proximity of the two public projects gives weight to the story that would otherwise being missing. Today, a $578M effort is underway to revitalize the Arch grounds.

The Pruitt-Igoe MythThe film shows Pruitt-Igoe as a community, its residents as people. The sounds of a record player pushed to a doorway to be heard by an entire floor, the smells of a dozen different dinners being prepared, the hundreds of sets of Christmas lights reflected in the snow; these are the cherished memories of childhood. The fights, the drugs and crime were life for many in the city.

If the film’s message is that Pruitt-Igoe is St. Louis, we’re left to wonder what the hell happened to our city? If the residents of Pruitt-Igoe were people just as others in the city, what does that say about how we treat the poor? We’re rewarded today by the fact that Pruitt-Igoe was large enough and dramatic enough to receive a spotlight. As a mirror, it tells the story of St. Louis as nothing else can. In the honest and balanced hands of Freidrichs and Producers Paul Fehler, Jamie Freidrichs and Brian Woodman, the lazy and damaging myths of Pruitt-Igoe are easily dispelled, replaced with a clear presentation of the true complexity of our urban history. What more could one ask?

Additional nextSTL coverage of Pruitt-Igoe, urban renewal and The Pruitt-Igoe Myth:
nextSTL Preview: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History
[Open/Closed] Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary presentation by Juan William Chavez
Colin Gordon Talks Mapping Decline, Vacant Land and Urban Renewal with nextSTL

{all images courtesy of pruitt-igoe.com}

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  • Scott Jones

    I look forward to seeing it.

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    Good review. Small correction: Only two of the towers were imploded in 1972, on March 16 and April 21. The remainder were taken down by wrecking ball in 1976 and 1977.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Thanks – corrected in the third paragraph.

    • john w.

       I’m pretty sure I brought this up during the Printmakers and artists event on Cherokee last month, at the installation that you helped devise, and you told me that it was completely removed by 1973. It has long been my understanding that the process of demolition occurred from March 1972 (the ‘photo’) to 1976. Many credible publications on the subject have this time period indicated as the full demolition phase.

  • Held Over

    Wait, so now the Arch (and subsequent revitalization) is a bad thing? Please correct me if I’m out of line here…but what the heck? I don’t get this.

    • Alex Ihnen

      There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on urban renewal didn’t help the people who needed it most, and maybe didn’t help the city.

      The question I’d ask you is what revitalization has been effected by the Arch, which corporations have moved to downtown St. Louis to be the millions of photos taken of the monument, what stores opened as result of the Arch?

      • Held Over

        Touche.  But do you not think revitalizing the Arch grounds now and possibly changing I-70 so that it doesn’t separate downtown from The Landing is a good thing?

        • Alex Ihnen

          I think I have a different view of what “revitalizing” means. My definition does not = $578M. When the time comes to rebuilt the 1.4M of I-70 downtown, we should not reinvest in the status quo. It should be removed. I believe its removal would revitalize the Arch grounds and surrounding area more than any other action and be less expensive than rebuilding and maintaining a 50-year-old Interstate.

          • Held Over

            The idea of removing I-70 and turning it into a thoroughfare (would that be the term?) is very intriguing.  Are there any other big cities that have tried this experiment?

          • Alex Ihnen

            Enough so that it’s really not an “experiment”. It works – not everywhere and not the same way for every place, but perhaps a dozen have done it and a dozen more are trying: http://www.cnu.org/node/3472. There’s much more on the City to River website (http://www.citytoriver.org) about prior highway removals.. There’s much more on the City to River website (http://www.citytoriver.org) about prior highway removals.

          • stlreader

            San Francisco did it with the Embarcadero after the earthquake destroyed the (ugly as hell) elevated highway. Souel did it as well, turning an elevated highway into a flowing (artificial/controlled) river.

  • Mark

    I haven’t seen the film yet, but I must say that I view St Louis as a canvas for the Pruitt-Igoe story– a canvas that looked (and still looks) surprisingly similar when comparing mid-sized American cities and recent American history.  What makes this story so shocking is the scale of the development compared to our own relative shrinking size at the time.  It makes for nice spectacle.
    As implemented, Pruitt-Igoe was the mark of supreme arrogance, a doubling down on failed concepts. But so much of 20th Century America was : the suburbs, the automobile, the Interstate, segregation, racism.  (Lest we forget Martin Luther King, Jr was getting bricks thrown at him in Oak Park, a prized Chicago suburb, a decade after these towers were built.)  These monumental conceptual failures were enablers of this short story, and we face facts that none of these larger failures will disappear in our lifetime as easily as Pruitt-Igoe did.  
    Seeing the Arch in the background of those photos is haunting, particularly because we all know what it is a monument to: Westward Expansion.  Ms. Sills is right.  We built a monument to the very thing that would betray us: the illusion that we could keep on running –forever. (No one claimed that idols were particularly hard to spot.)

    Until we are willing to face the problems created by our past, by our history, together, the dust from those towers will never clear.

    • Held Over

      What’s wrong with interstates and automobiles?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m down with altering I-70 to make downtown and The Landing less cut off, and I’m also for public transit, but could you elaborate further?

      • Alex Ihnen

        Chime in Mark, but what’s wrong with Interstates and automobiles is that it has facilitated a civic failure. People with means can, do and have moved away from social ills. At the same time, Interstates haven’t helped cities, or at least have not led to prosperous cities. I’m not sure there’s any argument at all against an Interstate from St. Louis to Kansas City. There is an argument against multiple Interstate THROUGH cities.

        • Held Over

          Just so I know what you’re saying:

          You like/don’t mind interstates, as long as they don’t go through cities?  So you’re okay with I-55?  So you don’t like I-64 and I-44?

          • Mark

            This may be a bit off topic for this forum, but I might as well clarify my opinion:

            I don’t think we need highways for moving goods/people in urban or rural areas.  My main line of reasoning is that barge/river and rail shipping are way cheaper than highways.  Also, historically, the move away from river shipping is one of the main reasons for our decline as a region.  But let me unpack this a little…

            Civilizations have been harnessing the power of rivers and seas to move around for centuries. Why should we be any different?  There is one other advantage to this strategy, as it causes people to build cities where there’s already water, instead of where there’s not, which then increases costs even more by creating vast public infrastructure projects.  One of the most successful cities in America employed this strategy: Chicago (the Great Lakes).Let me address the rail issue, though, because there is a lot of misinformation circulating about its cost.  The sum total of public/private money going into the highway system is way more than rail could ever be for several reasons:1. Efficiency – Friction between the roadway and tires forces cars to lose efficiency over a train.  There is way less friction on a railway track.  This is significant as friction works against inertia (which keeps things in motion unless there is an opposing force.)2. Resources – Locomotive engines use less fuel even when powered by the same stuff as cars because they are larger and more efficient.  They lose less energy to heat/mechanical inefficiencies.  When they run on electric, they gain the efficiencies of the power plant, which are huge.3. Human cost – Trains require a lot less drivers than the interstate, which means you have to pay less people to move the goods and people.  There is also the added benefit that with less drivers, people can spend the time they would’ve spent driving doing other things –reading, playing with their grandkids, etc.Even if we choose to make electric automobiles and run them on highways, they will never be as cheap as railways for all of the reasons mentioned above –that combined with the fact that thousands of engineers in Detroit are being paid a lot of money to figure out a way to make them work in the first place.  We already know how to make electric trains, we’ve been doing it for a hundred years or more.  Smart investors such as Warren Buffet know this; that is why he bought the BNSF railway several years ago.Don’t misread me, though.  It’s not that I think that automobiles aren’t necessary or by their very nature evil or something like that.  In my own view, I think they are probably needed in rural areas to move goods and people to/from train stations.  But that doesn’t necessitate a highway.  As a general concept, I think automobiles are way overused in this country.Hope this helps explain my viewpoint.

        • Mark

          Alex, yes, I agree with that statement.  I might add that it’s no surprise that some of the more successful “livable” mid-sized cities with growing populations have actually removed interstates or are considering doing so.
          Portland, OR:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harbor_Drive#Removal_of_the_freewaySeattle, WA:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proposed_replacement_of_the_Alaskan_Way_Viaduct

          Larger cities with larger populations (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, etc) have the luxury of choosing to develop their mass transit systems _and_ their existing highways.  This may be because at some level they are both necessary to keep things running status quo.

          Smaller cities like ours only have the (private/public) revenue to do one or the other well and always have.  Not only do they compete for revenue, but they also compete for passengers.

          I favor mass transit over highways/automobiles for many reasons:

          1. it costs _society_ less than highways.  How many of us enjoy paying $20,000 for a new automobile every 10 years?
          2. it uses less energy
          3. it fosters denser development
          4. it puts strangers, people of mixed races and socio-economic backgrounds, in situations where they are able to talk and look at each other.

          • stlreader

            San Francisco had a huge fight over running an interstate through the city (connecting it to the Golden Gate Bridge I think), and basically it’s a livable city because they prevented it, IMO at least.

        • dempster holland

          You say thaat interstate highways do not help
          cities, but do not discuss whether interstate
          highways help people who live in cities. Many city
          residents over the past 60 years have been able
          to escape crowded, small obsolete city apart-
          ments and move to the suburbs. This movement
          was made easier because of interstate highways.
          It is true that this was a major reason why the
          physical structure of the cities decayed because
          much was no longer needed. Some ‘urbanists”
          decry the loss of the old physical structure of the
          city, while ignoring the benefits have come to
          many city residents who now have a much more
          pleasent place to live. Which leads to the question :
          which is more important, buildings or people?

          • Alex Ihnen

            Sorry to confuse, but in general, “does not help cities” is meant to be synonymous with “does not help people who live in cities.” One of the tenants of the broad narrative here at nextSTL is that cities = people. If the movement to the suburbs via the new highways were simply a rational response to market forces, decrying the decay of the city may be a different conversation, but that’s not the case. Often, people weren’t given a choice. Banks wouldn’t lend to people in the city, but would happily do so in the suburbs. Federal, state and local policies poured billions into subsidizing sprawl while not addressing urban challenges. Just one example: Mill Creek Valley, Soulard, etc. were indeed obsolete in mid last century as they lacked indoor plumbing etc. But instead of investing in these places, money was poured into highways and extending utilities and roads to the suburban fringe. Of course for individuals, their situation in the suburbs may have been an immediate improvement, but cities last for hundreds of years (or can and should) and the trend has meant more suffering for many, and as we’re seeing now, stagnant population and job growth as we’ve built a city/region ill suited to compete in the national and global economy. The cost to simply maintain our sprawling infrastructure – roads, gas lines, sewers – is already starting to overwhelm us. One indicator of the impact is that the City of St. Louis today generates 11x the aggregate income per acre than the metro area in general.

          • dempster holland

            By 1950, the city had generally filled up, and there
            was little room for new construction. Similarly, the
            older inner suburbs were also beginning to fill up.
            Meanwhile, rising incomes allowed many persons
            living in apartments to move to single family homes.
            These are the facts which drove the development of
            suburbs, with less density than the older areas (the
            area to accomodate two families living in a t bwo family–each buy a house–must double). Add pop-
            ulation growth in the combined city-couty popu-
            lation, widen the side yards and the result is a.
            urban sprawl The further result is more traffic and
            more congestion. All of this would have happened
            whatever the banks policies and whether the people
            involved were black or white.
            You may not remember the huge traffic jams
            of the 1950s, as people working downtown and
            living in central county drove home over west pine and lindell or out the express highway which ended
            at Skinker, or out Natural Bridge or Gravois.
            I say all this not to be negative about those who
            wish to save and revive the old city. But I do say
            that they would be better equipped to do so if
            they understood the true causes of the changes
            in our American cities since ww2, and did not
            seek out easy scapegoats such as banks and
            highway departments

          • Alex Ihnen

            “All of this would have happened whatever the banks policies and whether the people involved were black or white.”

            That simply isn’t true. Population growth in St. Louis County effectively ended more than 40 years ago. In 1950 there was certainly overcrowding in the city – decades of near-no investment due to the Depression and war challenged all cities. The city hasn’t been crowded for decades. Today the cities which chose a slightly different path, those that didn’t bulldoze as much as St. Louis, those that didn’t build as many highways through them, are benefiting. It’s stunning to hear over and over again in St. Louis that there were no alternatives, that what we have today is simply the natural, inevitable outcome of history, that it’s all so rational and unavoidable. That’s ahistorical and directly contrary to what we know about the experience in other cities, not to mention sections of our own city. Such unfounded beliefs (subtly balanced on top of some facts) need to be contested if we’re to make better decisions now and in the future.

          • dempster holland

            In 1940 the combined city=county population was
            1,090,000. In 1950 the combined population was
            1,252,000 and the city was full. Ten years later in
            1960 the combined population was 1,453,000.
            Where would the extra people go after 1950 ex-
            cept into the county? The combined population
            peaked in 1970 at 1,573,000 and after that the
            excess started to go into st charles county.Then City
            population declined rapidly as blacks began
            moving out of the city to north and northwest
            county for suburban style homes/ South st louis
            in many areas remained fairly stable except for
            reduction in average family size. As to other
            cities, certainly Chicago has the same freeway
            pattern as st Louis does. New york city outside of
            manhatten has many freeways. These and a few
            other eastern cities had rapid transit systems built
            largely in the early 20th century, and St Louis’s
            failure to do that was a major mistake But with
            no rapid transit and no highways, the result
            would be severe traffic jams, more traffic on
            neighborhood streets and a downtown that
            would have already ceased to exist as to jobs

          • dempster holland

            Here are highways going into midwestern and
            eastern cities (one that goes into and through
            downtown and then back to suburbs is counted
            as two highways). Spurs are thos that diverge
            from cbd bound hw some distance away (eg
            inner belt in stl; edens in chicago). Boston,
            Cleveland and Cnicago have more than one third
            of their hinterland over water
            Baltimore: 4; full outer belt
            Boston: 4; full outer belt
            Chicago 4 with 3 spurs; full outer belt
            Cinncinati: purs; partial outer belt
            Cleveland: 4 with 2 spurs; partial outer belt
            Detroit: 6 with 2 spurs; partial outer bel
            New York city:
            Brooklyn 5
            st is 3
            bronx 6
            queens 8
            manhatten 3
            Pittsburg 5; partial outer belt
            Philadelphia 4 with 2 spurs; partial outer belt
            St Louis 5 with 2 spurs full outer belt
            Washington DC 3 short ones; full outer belt;

      • stlreader

        Read some stuff by James Howard Kunstler like “Geography of Nowhere”.

  • RobbyD

    I have so many thoughts about this film and I haven’t even seen it! (though I have watched an extended trailer and listened to two lengthy interviews with the director, experts, and former residents)…1. The most striking thing to me is that the movie tells the story of people, not ideologies or political platforms…2. I applaud the efforts of gov’t planners and politicans of the era to try and move mountains in order to care for the least among us…It is obvious that the private sector had become unable or unwilling to handle the City’s housing issues…It then became obvious that the crown jewel of the gov’t response was equally inadequate…3. The tone of “lessons learned” in the film is crucial to moving forward with better solutions…4. The stories of real people making meaningful lives for themselves at Pruitt-Igoe is vitally important to hear and accept…Only then can we fully embrace the deep tragedy of what happened ot the residents of that community…5. That people were able to survive and have a true sense of normalacy in the midst of such decay and crime is a testiment to the human spirit…

  • stlreader

    I was an audience member at the packed Tivoli, and was pleasantly surprised that it was full.

    I agree with you that the film provided questions, not answers. Alternative view points, not a mainline story.
    And I was appreciative that they recognized 1. the city planners were trying their best and 2. the prior conditions were squalid and 3. real people, not caricatures, lived there.What the film does make clear is what was missed, overlooked, or plainly insufficiently planned for; that people who lived in those (prior) squalid conditions really were lacking the marketable skills and wage income to move on to better conditions.They were addressing the symptoms, squalid housing, not the cause, lack of wages. But this view had a counter-point. The movie showed a newspaper article for a brief second with the headline “Slums are a Goldmine” (phara-phrasing); this view makes it seem that while squalid, people were working (since, how else would they pay rent?). Pruitt-Igoe was a concentration of work-less, single mothers with young children with few working men.The architectural view also was expounded, although not as strongly as I would have suspected, given the literature on the subject. Oscar Newman, who saw Pruitt-Igoe during the worst as a Wash U researcher wrote a great book on what he calls ‘Defensible Space’; but that’s the wrong term since that gives an idea of home as fortress. In reality, what he’s talking about is whether people feel they have legitimacy to control a space, and if they feel they have authority (police) backing them if they have to assert their legitimate rights (such as asking a loiterer on the front steps what they are doing there). What Newman saw at Pruitt-Igoe was the while the public spaces were virtual ‘no-mans land’ and often completely filthy, the interior of the houses were often nicely kept. This lead him to recommend that most, if not all, public space be eliminated from public housing and moved to the control of 1 or a very small number (less than 6, little as 2) families.As for the interviews in the film. They were powerful testament to the fact that these were real places, with real people inhabiting them; that it wasnt just a really bad dream.