When St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe Project was completed in 1956, it seemed an answer to many prayers, affordable and respectable housing designed (by Minoru Yamasaki, also the architect of the World Trade Center Towers) to lift its residents out of poverty and serve the surrounding communities as well. When it was torn down just two decades later, Pruitt-Igoe had become an example of how poor, uneducated, and “rural” communities inevitably go wrong, and don’t deserve help—especially from the government. This sort of story resonates today, of course, revived in the current Republican presidential campaigns. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth shows how the story evolved and why it lingers, still reductive, destructive, and tragic.
Opening 20 January at IFC Center, Chad Freidrichs’ smart, insightful—and often beautiful—documentary traces problems inherent in the site’s planning and ordained by “the enemies of public housing,” who insisted no government money be allotted for upkeep, leaving tenants responsible for costs they couldn’t possibly afford. Further, the project neglected to consider the changing demographics of American cities in the 1950s, informed by ongoing racism (again, we can note the relevance for today). “Public housing always used as a segregation tool,” submits historian Joseph Heathcott, and St. Louis “did everything in its power to prevent what it called ‘Negro de-concentration,’ to keep African Americans from moving out of particular neighborhoods,” even as whites were moving “in droves” to the burbs. “By the time you get to the Pruitt-Igoe moment,” he says, “You have a society that is hyper-segregated in fact, and a region that’s hyper-segregated.” As residents remember what happened, the loss of property seems small compared to many other losses. In showing these experiences, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth reveals how fictional history continues shape the present.
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