You Can’t Escape the Memories: ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth’

[7 June 2012]

By Terrence Butcher

“Now you can tear a building down,
but you can’t erase the memory.”
—Living Colour, “Open Letter to a Landlord”

Living Colour’s trenchant song, “Open Letter to a Landlord”, wielded a musical sword against against now-controversial urban renewal, kickstarted by the Housing Act of 1949, and ultimately a municipal wrecking ball – literally!—for human-scaled inner-city neighborhoods. Although Living Colour intended those plaintive words to evoke nostalgia for 19th-century brick tenement housing, they also serve as a manifesto for many former residents of the Pruitt-Igoe, a notorious planned community of Corbusian apartment blocks, which replaced the dilapidated slums, and loomed over postwar St. Louis, both physically and culturally, as Cabrini-Green did Chicago during that same devastating era.

In the opening sequence of Chad Friedrichs’ provocative documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, inspired by Katharine Bristol’s eponymously-titled academic treatise, former resident Sylvester Brown talks about visiting the now-vacant site, a 33-acre parcel since devolved into an urban forest, and speaks about a sense of deja vu he felt, accompanied by fear. Friedrichs then cuts to a happy, shiny ‘50s propaganda film announcing the debut of Pruitt-Igoe. We see children playing jubilantly, a brilliant sun, and sugary music that seems plucked straight from Davey & Goliath, and we’re left to wonder…what could this erudite gentleman have been afraid of?

The Pruitt-Igoe apartments were completed in the mid-‘50s, during public housing’s aspirational period, and designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also crafted the tragically ill-fated World Trade Center towers, another exemplar of grand civic ambition. The complex contained 33 buildings, all stark Modernist rectangles—the sort that acerbic urban planning critic James Howard Kunstler would trash talk—and at its peak, some 12,000 individuals called it home.

Few deny, either in this film or elsewhere, that the crumbling multi-family dwellings of the ancient DeSoto-Carr district were dangerous and unsanitary; indeed, death by fire was a notable threat, and communal toilets were ubiquitous. One Pruitt-Igoe almnus, Jacquelyn Williams, speaks candidly about the overcrowding in her miniscule childhood apartment. The aforementioned Housing Act of 1949 was created – ostensibly – to address this issue, and the powers that be had far-reaching plans for the city’s rebirth.

To that end, Pruitt-Igoe was, at first, a reasonably pleasant environment. Several interviewees talk wistfully about the fairytale glow cast by thousands of Christmas lights every December, making Pruitt-Igoe shine like Coney Island’s fabled but short-lived Dreamland amusement park, which was bathed in gauzy luminescence every evening as the sun set. Despite good intentions by all, however, the fantasy of erasing intractable urban problems with design principles proved elusive.

The myth referenced in the film’s title is that Pruitt-Igoe’s fatal flaw was its architectural design, a long-held belief that Friedrich’s film handily debunks. Pruitt-Igoe, first and foremost, was a victim of unfortunate timing. Local leaders dreamed of city beautification just as those who could – the white middle and working classes – were fleeing city life for clean, green suburbia. This process was aided immeasurably by federal mortgage guarantees and the G.I. Bill, not to mention the Interstate Highway Act – introduced the same year that Pruitt-Igoe opened – and the proliferation of sprawling shopping malls.

Simultaneously, cities across the US began de-industrializing, shedding the lucrative factory jobs which those without college degrees – which meant the urban poor—depended on. Many of these poor came to Rust Belt cities specifically to toil in industrial occupations. The city’s growth projections anticipated them, and large-scale housing developments were deemed necessary.

Ominously, while Pruitt-Igoe was constructed with municipal funds, no money was ponied up for maintenance, as that was “the responsibility of the tenants”. The results were predictable. Cleanliness and security were quickly sacrificed. One ex-resident describes urine-scented elevators which would suddenly halt, and having to pry open the doors and climb out of the shaft. Windows and lights were frequently shattered. Crime ran rampant, and arriving police and firefighting personnel were often greeted with hostility.

Welfare regulations stipulated that families could not receive a dime if an able-bodied man were present, so fathers were forced to find other accommodations, and Pruitt-Igoe became a de facto prison for male-less AFDC households. One former Pruitt-Igoe resident tells a darkly funny story of her dad hiding under a bed to escape the vigilant eyes of the welfare authorities. Of course, the community evolved into a breeding ground for a sort of toxic masculinity, as fatherless boys sought to be perceived as men, and by the mid-‘60s, Pruitt-Igoe was in social freefall.

Ironically, despite the multitudes housed at Pruitt-Igoe, thousands more were left out, and the destruction of their former homes pushed them into outlying sections of the city, or away from St. Louis altogether. Many have thus argued that “urban renewal” amounted to little more than Negro removal, as long-standing communities were demolished, the land commandeered by developers, and the former residents, mostly non-white, situated on ‘reservations’ like Pruitt-Igoe, which whites were taught to avoid. They were apparently oblivious to the fact that a racial cast system created them, as evidenced by white homemakers in the film, eagerly expressing their distaste for living next to African-Americans. As The Pruitt-Igoe Myth makes clear, urban renewal was among many tactics used to maintain a strict color barrier in American metropolises.

Eventually, the tenants remaining in the hellhole Pruitt-Igoe had become realized that their numbers granted them political clout, and banded together to effect positive changes. There was a realization, however, as one respondent puts it, that “the experiment had gone terribly awry”, and the towers were slowly emptied, by judicial order. By 1976, Pruitt-Igoe was a ghostly colossus, and the buildings were dynamited; a clip of one particular implosion can be seen in the avant-garde landmark Koyaanisqatsi.

Extras included in this home video release are comprehensive. We get the obligatory director’s commentary, bio, and a gallery of other films available from First Run. More intriguing is a featurette, Remember Pruitt-Igoe, essentially a tour of the abandoned site, now an accidental urban forest. Our tour guide informs us that the site remains a forbidden zone to white St. Louis residents, and points out the skeletons of streetcar tracks amidst the debris.

There are also interview outtakes from ten former residents, including Billie Tenneau, the only white tenant presented in the movie. Sylvester Brown pops up again to reveal the class divisions which existed at Pruitt-Igoe back in the day; it seems that some buildings carried more prestige than others. Ah, human nature.

Finally, the package features seasoned action helmer Steve Carver’s (Big Bad Mama, Capone) stellar 1970 short, More Than One Thing. This film is an impressionistic portrait of teenager William Townes, who lived in the development. Carver uses plenty of slow-motion photography, coupled with a moody jazz score, and the movie sometimes evokes early Cassavetes.

Several former tenants express teary-eyed regret at seeing Pruitt-Igoe vanish, a reminder that we seldom lose affection for our childhood abodes, however nightmarish they may have seemed to outsiders. And there’s the rub. Yes, Pruitt-Igoe suffered from massive problems, and needed complete overhaul or elimination. The latter was chosen, after the complex became emblematic of public housing’s alleged failure, which is debatable. But Pruitt-Igoe was also home to so many, and birthday parties, dances, Sunday dinners, etc. all unfolded there, in tandem with pathological acting-out.

Most of us, myself included, would never have chosen to live there during its declining phase, but I recognize that its now-scattered tenants, those still living, knew a togetherness so many people – ensconced in suburban comfort, surfing the Web – quietly long for.

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