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Destroyed in a dramatic and highly-publicized implosion, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex has become a widespread symbol of failure amongst architects, politicians and policy makers. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth explores the social, economic and legislative issues that led to the decline of conventional public housing in America, and the city centers in which they resided, while tracing the personal and poignant narratives of several of the project's residents. In the post-War years, the American city changed in ways that made it unrecognizable from a generation earlier, privileging some and leaving others in its wake. The next time the city changes, remember Pruitt-Igoe. Written by
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth attempts to dispel some of the myths about that infamous housing complex in St. Louis. In particular it targets the inaccurate public perception of why government housing projects fail, while at the same time taking into account how the residents themselves felt about what they called home. In order to tackle the complexity of the issue, the documentary is structured in a chronological way, starting in the 1940's and concluding at the destruction of the complex in the 1970's.
Pruitt-Igoe was commissioned to battle the lack of competent housing in St. Louis. To give a bit of background, St. Louis was a bustling industrial city for the first half of the 20th century. After a slump during the Great Depression, expectations were high for the growth of the city. The documentary emphasizes this idea of growth. It claims there was a culture of growth in St. Louis, with huge expectations of economic activity and population increases. Pruitt-Igoe was commissioned and built within this culture of growth. It was envisioned to replace the tenements that housed tens of thousands of poor residents throughout the city, and concentrate them within 33 high-rises on a large piece of urban land.
There was great faith in Pruitt-Igoe. It was essentially supposed to be a solve-all. By adding competent housing into the equation, planners thought that these poor people would have a solid base to move up the socio-economic ladder, since the expectation was that jobs would be available. However, no one was able to envision the terror that was to strike St. Louis; the growth that was expected within the city did not happen.
What occurred instead was the de-industrialization of the city. Though the causes of this de-industrialization are debatable, the documentary attributes it to a phenomenon called suburban sprawl. This storyline is not particular to St. Louis however, and similar effects were seen across the nation.
The new level of post-war prosperity allowed millions of whites across the nation to afford green lawns and quiet communities in newly built sub-divisions. Industries followed these blue-collar workers, and cities were devastated. St. Louis lost 20% of its population by 1970. Cities like Detroit and Cleveland lost closer to a third. The tax bases of these cities were destroyed. Pruitt-Igoe was built with federal funds but maintained by rent income and local taxes. When the money dried up, which it did right away, the complex was left on its own. The residents blamed the Housing Authority, the Housing Authority blamed the city of St. Louis, St. Louis blamed the federal government, and the documentary blames white-flight. So why exactly did whites move? Some, including myself, would argue it was simple economics, because cheaper land was available outside city limits and the automobile made it possible to live in the suburbs and commute to work. The emerging middle class no longer had to live near industrial zones. However, the documentary contends that it was racially based. One white middle aged woman, when asked why she moved to the suburbs, replied "because I wanted to live in a white community." She went on to say that though she did not believe blacks should be oppressed, she could not live next to them. Another white woman interviewed expressed her fear of plummeting property values and crime when blacks moved into adjacent neighborhoods. No doubt the makers of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth included these interviews to advance the claim that Pruitt-Igoe failed due to racism. Yet this opinion seems to be on the fringe of moderate consensus, because where one chooses to live does not directly affect the life of another. Blacks were just as poor when whites lived in the city. The only difference was that in the case of Pruitt-Igoe, they were living in un-maintained high-rises built by whites. The failure of Pruitt-Igoe actually resulted from the ignorance of planners who did not consider the longevity of a place filled with the poorest of the poor. There was no way that these people would be able to maintain the buildings without federal aid. The city of St. Louis, faced with a plummeting population and tax base, could not do so either. The thesis of the documentary is that the failure of Pruitt-Igoe, though a disaster in itself, does not reflect disaster in every federally funded housing project. Though the cause of defending federal housing projects is admirable, the documentary makes the too-obvious argument that Pruitt-Igoe failed due to white-negligence. This sort of finger pointing does nothing to advance the situation of blacks. Nor does it take into account the very racist and segregationist nature of America in the first place. The majority of white Americans, both before and after Pruitt-Igoe, preferred to live in white communities. This is a trend that we still see to this day. So as long as planners huddle poor people into certain areas and expect something magical to happen, basic economics will reign supreme and these people will remain poor.
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