In the middle of St. Louis, Missouri, just northwest of the Gateway Arch, is a vast and vacant fifty-seven-acre woodland. Oak and hickory trees are slowly reclaiming ground and overtaking the scant remains of thirty-three eleven-story apartment buildings, which once comprised the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex.
Completed in the mid-1950s before construction of the Arch even began, Pruitt-Igoe was one of the largest low-income public housing projects in the country.
For nearly a decade, the complex distinguished the St. Louis city’s skyline and received praise for its innovative modernist architecture that incorporated the planning principles of a radiant city. Yet just eighteen years after residents moved in, state and federal authorities demolished the towers with explosives and abandoned the site. What caused this immense failure in urban planning and public housing? This critical question is at the center of Chad Freidrichs’ documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History.
The documentary claims that three interconnected issues account for Pruitt-Igoe’s collapse. First, the economy essentially abandoned Pruitt-Igoe. After World War II, midwestern cities like St. Louis were flooding with poorer minorities from the southern states farms, where technology in agriculture displaced laborers. When these minorities arrived, the white middle class moving to the suburbs was nearly complete.
Coincidentally, the same act that made Pruitt-Igoe possible also fueled this suburbanization via expanded Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans that made houses on the city’s outskirts more affordable. The documentary makes it clear that the move to the suburbs was problematic because it caused the de-population and de-capitalization of Midwestern urban centers, where public housing initiatives were underway and premised upon continued urban growth, demands for high density living, and available jobs—all trends that did not come true.
The Pruitt-Igoe myth was confirmation of whites disinterest in accepting minorities into their communities. For example, the whites’ exodus to the suburbs (getting away from black people) began reversing itself when some minorities began to move into the suburbs and some whites moved back to the city. Throughout St. Louis history, we see countless number of incidents like these in terms of gentrification. Homes are taken away from minority families through gentrification forcing families to leave their only habitats and social support with services and other needs.
The history of Pruitt-Igoe sheds light on today’s challenges the city of St. Louis faces in regards to racial disparities.
Second, the documentary finds fault with the laws that built and maintained the complex. Pruitt-Igoe was a product of the 1949 Public Housing Act, passed to address mounting problems in urban low income neighborhoods by providing safer houses and eliminating profit making landlords.
When it first opened, residents dreamt that Pruitt-Igoe could be a “poor man’s penthouse,” offering beds for all family members, privacy, and healthier living conditions. However, as the documentary maintains, it was a naive assumption on the legislatures that better housing alone could fix the broad societal problems that gave rise to the “ghettos” in the first place. Further, former residents assert that one of the main reasons Pruitt-Igoe fell was the failure of authorities to plan for the future and secure funds for maintaining the large housing complex.
Last and not the least, segregation and racism effectively eliminated any meaningful opportunities remaining for the residents of Pruitt-Igoe. From the beginning, authorities planned to officially segregate the complex and use public housing as a tool to prevent what was termed “negro de-concentration.” When Pruitt-Igoe opened, though, the Supreme Court’s decision that same year in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) required a change of plans, but white residents simply left, which resulted in perpetuating the effects of segregation.
Moreover, white public housing authorities attempted to control the predominantly African American inhabitants with moralistic rules, such as restricting adult men, single or married, from living in Pruitt-Igoe. This resulted in broken families and no role model black male figures to help guide the young ones.
The residents of Pruitt-Igoe brought these and other numerous issues like sanitation, water, heat and electricity problems to the city and housing officials but to no avail. The City and housing officials failed the residents of Pruitt Igoe. The people were living under deplorable conditions and concentrated poverty but because of the color of their skin they couldn’t get any meaningful help or attention. Today, the “Pruitt-Igoe” issues in St. Louis still exist.
Houses and complex apartments may not be demolished, but the constant negligence and lack of support from St. Louis City and housing officials is quite stunning considering we’re living in the year 2018. It’s so unfortunate that the “Pruitt-Igoe’s” racial issue and the affects are still present today.