Like a Christmas Present
Poverty never created immorality. Poverty created want.
“It was a safe place for me. If you didn’t live in there, you thought it was a bad place… If you lived in there, you knew the people. You were never alone.” Jacquelyn Williams’ memories reflect the many contradictions of the Pruitt-Igoe projects. Like her, many former residents have fond recollections. Sylvester Brown describes the “sense of family, the warm smells of pies and cakes and cookies” he experienced as a child. And Valerie Sills says that her family’s arrival was “like a Christmas present. There was snow on the ground and lights all over the place… It was really nice.”
But these memories are very different from most “historical” accounts of Pruitt-Igoe, which focus on its failure. As recounted in Chad Freidrichs’ terrific documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History—screening at Stranger Than Fiction on 28 June, followed by a Q&A with Freidrichs—this failure is typically attributed to familiar causes. It is blamed on the residents, on the ambitious design by architect Minoru Yamasaki (who also designed the World Trade Center towers), and on the very idea of the welfare state. The St. Louis Housing Authority overreached, assert critics, by imagining that low-income tenants could appreciate or live up to the promise of their new environs. And by the time the project was torn down in 1972, Pruitt-Igoe was “notorious,” a prototypical example of how poor, uneducated, and “rural” communities inevitably go wrong, and don’t deserve help—especially from the government.
But as the film revisits this “myth,” it finds the reasons for the failure in the project’s inception. Touted as “a solution, a cure for the disease,” says narrator Jason Henry, Pruitt-Igoe was supposed to lift “its residents out of poverty, they would thrive and the city would prosper.” When tenants started moving in, in 1954, they were proud and happy for the opportunity. The Housing Authority promoted the 33 buildings with footage of children on bicycles and women in wasp-waist dresses: “This is a far cry from the crowded, collapsing tenements that many of these people have known,” observes the voice-of-God narrator, “Here in bright new buildings with spacious grounds, they can live, live with indoor plumbing, electric lights, plastered walls, and the rest of the conveniences that are expected in the 20th century.”
For a minute, maybe. Problems were visible almost immediately, built into the site’s planning and ordained by “the enemies of public housing,” who insisted no government money be allotted for upkeep. At first, “It was clean,” as Sills remembers, “The maintenance men were always sweeping.” But, the film points out, tenants’ income couldn’t sustain this program, and it wasn’t long before the place was in disrepair. Brian King remembers moving in as a boy, and feeling overwhelmed by the “stench” of garbage piled outside an incinerator, part of a disposal system that was never large enough to accommodate the “12,000 people originally jammed into 33 buildings.”
Such poor planning is compounded by other lack of foresight, regarding the changing shape of American cities in the 1950s. Historian Robert Fishman describes the postwar movement of middle class families to the suburbs, as workers who were able moved away from the areas where they worked, and many cities subsequently lost much of their tax base. This “new American dream” was visible during the development of Pruitt-Igoe, but planners missed or ignored the trend, not guessing that St. Louis’ population had peaked in the 1950s.
On top of this demographic shift, the documentary points out the ongoing racism that structured the planning and experience of Pruitt-Igoe. “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.”
This “society” is reinforced by specific policies in the projects. Families who moved in were not allowed to have telephones, televisions—or men. As sociologist Joyce Ladner recalls, “The Housing Authority had a rule that no able-bodied man could be in the house if a woman received aid for dependent children.” And so, says Williams, when her parents learned her father had to move out of state in order to move the family into Pruitt-Igoe, her parents discussed their options and “decided that it was best for the 12 children for the father to leave the home. And that’s how we got into the projects.” While such policies were not unique to St. Louis (indeed, the very premise of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” is an effect of such policy), they contributed to the myth of Pruitt-Igoe. Ladner adds that the residents “were treated in some ways like they were prisoners. If we are going to support you and to give a few measly dollars to live on, then we’re going to extract blood from you.” These typically “punitive” rules, she points out, created a “whole undertone of morality, that they had poor morality, that they were immoral by virtue of the lifestyles they lived.”
The public image of Pruitt-Igoe—circulated in TV news stories and newspaper headlines (“Pruitt-Igoe called a menace!”)—has made the myth seem like history. As residents suffered and/or committed vandalism and violence, they received less and less support from authorities. Police and social workers, maintenance workers and managers stopped coming to the site, leaving tenants feeling abandoned and angry.
This led to crime and anxiety and despair, as Brian King underlines. Remembering his brother’s murder at Pruitt-Igoe, he describes lasting effects. “My mom was bitter, my family was bitter. It took me eight years to stop dreaming about it every night,” he says. Now, he sees that living in Pruitt-Igoe “taught me empathy.” Now, as the film shows the well-known footage of Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition, it provides contexts that make the tragedy clear. Still, this loss of property seems small compared to many other losses remembered by former residents. In showing these experiences, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth reveals how inaccurate history continues shape the present.