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Imploding the Pruitt-Igoe Myth

January 20, 2012

A new documentary attempts to alter how we look at St. Louis's infamous public housing project.

By Dante A. Ciampaglia

Pruitt-Igoe public housing development
Photo courtesy State Historic Society of Missouri

The first Pruitt-Igoe building to be demolished was imploded in 1972. Click on the slide show button to view additional images.

 

Photo courtesy State Historic Society of Missouri

The Pruitt-Igoe housing project seen before its demolition.

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Accepted wisdom will have us believe St. Louis' infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing development was destined for failure. Designed by George Hellmuth and World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki (of Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth), the 33-building complex opened in 1954, its Modernist towers touted as a remedy to overcrowding in the city’s tenements. Rising crime, neglected facilities, and fleeing tenants led to its demolition—in a spectacular series of implosions—less than two decades later. In the popular narrative, bad public policy, bad architecture, and bad people doomed Pruitt-Igoe, and it became an emblem of failed social welfare projects across the country. But director Chad Freidrichs challenges that convenient and oversimplified assessment in his documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, opening in limited release January 20.

He makes a compelling case. Drawing heavily on archival footage, raw data, and historical reanalysis, the film reorients Pruitt-Igoe as the victim of institutional racism and post-war population changes in industrial cities, among other issues far more complex than poor people not appreciating nice things. But while Freidrichs opens a new vein for discussing Pruitt-Igoe, he doesn't totally dispel the titular myth about it. There's a passing mention of the project’s failure being one of Modernist planning, that such developments "created a breeding ground for isolation, vandalism, and crime." And of course there's an invocation of Charles Jencks' famous declaration that the death of Pruitt-Igoe was "the death of Modernism." But Freidrichs never adequately addresses Pruitt-Igoe's place in the history of urban design.

But even if The Pruitt-Igoe Myth falls short of its stated goal, it's nevertheless exceptional. In an important act of preservation, Freidrichs captures the voices and memories of five former Pruitt-Igoe residents. They tell stories of jubilation when they're assigned an 11th floor apartment (their "poorman's penthouse") and when they see rows upon rows of windows bejeweled with Christmas lights. They share horrific tales of siblings murdered and living in constant fear of who lurks in the shadows. They remember how the welfare office told them they couldn't have a phone or a television, and how their husbands and fathers weren’t allowed to live with them.

Nearly 40 years after its destruction, the people interviewed for the film continue to wrestle with Pruitt-Igoe's legacy and its place in their lives. They love it and hate it, but don't resent it. Despite the piles of trash, mountains of drugs, and preponderance of crime, this was their home. For some, it was their first proper dwelling. They cared deeply about Pruitt-Igoe and still do, even in its current form—a largely overgrown lot roved by feral dogs. Pruitt-Igoe is fundamentally a part of them, and by sharing their memories they obliterate the part of the myth that says it was undone by its people.

Their stories are the kind being lost in the current incarnation of urban revival. As projects like Pruitt-Igoe—including Chicago’s recently demolished Cabrini-Green—are torn down and developers lust over the land under the rubble, the lives of displaced residents are ignored and forgotten. Indeed, with gentrification has come a whitewashing of a critical chapter of 20th-century American history. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is an attempt to reverse that. It correctly finds value in preserving this disappearing American experience on film and should serve as a prototype for similar efforts of cultural preservation.

 

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