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In St. Louis, An Urban Renewal Experiment Gone Bad

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
January 20, 2012

By the time it was imploded in the 1970s, after barely two decades of use, St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing project had become a national symbol of failure. But the failure of what? The Pruitt-Igoe Myth answers that question, if only narrowly.

With 12,000 residents in 33 high-rise buildings on 57 acres, the Wendell O. Pruitt and William L. Igoe Homes constituted an ambitious attempt to shelter the workers who would staff a resurgent postwar city. Problems soon surfaced, however, and some of them were beyond the scope even of so massive an undertaking.

It turned out that St. Louis, like a lot of Rust Belt cities, would not boom after the war. The population plummeted, making high-density, high-rise structures unnecessary. And while the federal government supported low-income projects like Pruitt-Igoe, it also encouraged the rapid growth of the suburbs.

This allowed new and more rigid patterns of racial segregation, enforced by municipal and county lines, and the shift of jobs away from downtowns. Rather than housing the urban working class, places like Pruitt-Igoe became internment camps for the permanently unemployed. Welfare policies made things worse by denying benefits to families with adult males in residence. Fathers and husbands had to leave — or hide in the closet when social workers came to check.

Director Chad Freidrichs and wife Jaime Freidrichs, both of whom wrote and produced the movie, show us the Pruitt-Igoe site today. (It’s been wooded for decades.) They also use snippets of news footage and archival film, including a sunny 1950s promo piece that couldn’t be more wrong about the project’s prospects.

Mostly, though, the filmmakers rely on interviews with former residents who insist that Pruitt-Igoe was not all bad. These people, now middle-aged or older, are not simply boosters. Some tell chilling stories of vandalism, arson, robbery and murder. But they say the project worked at first, and could have continued to prosper if better funded and managed.

Two urban historians support the residents’ version of events. Joseph Heathcott calls what happened to St. Louis “a slow-motion Katrina,” and Robert Fishman says “the public sector failed the people who lived in these buildings.”

That’s hard to dispute, although less sympathetic viewers might argue that residents could have done more to combat the decline. It takes a village, after all, to prevent dissatisfaction from spiraling into anarchy.

The movie disappoints by not addressing the larger implications of the supposed myth. It never mentions, for example, Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green, which began construction before Pruitt-Igoe and whose last building didn’t come down until 2011.

Nor does it consider other urban-renewal models, such as Washington, D.C.’s (somewhat) more successful Southwest, where public housing was mixed with market-rate buildings.

Although a montage of newspaper clippings reveals that some termed Pruitt-Igoe’s destruction “the death of Modernism,” the film sidesteps architectural-design issues. It doesn’t even note that the complex was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, whose World Trade Center was little loved (and heavily subsidized) before the Sept. 11 attacks made it a different sort of symbol.

In some ways, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is more elegy than analysis. Benjamin Balcom’s mournful score underlies everything, as survivors tell stories of deaths both literal and metaphorical. A brief final note that redevelopment is now advancing on the long-abandoned site suggests that much of this story remains untold. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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