Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A new documentary explores an overlooked truth - that the infamous housing project was once a very good thing.
The oft-retold story of Pruitt-Igoe’s demise might not be true after all.
The project, created to solve St. Louis's rapid inner city decline, was demolished just 20 years after its development. Ever since, it has been universally derided. Postmodernists and New Urbanists blame the scale and banality of Minouru Yamasaki’s brick towers, proclaiming its demolition the death of modernism.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, directed by Chad Freidrichs, explores the complex set of economic, political, and social issues that surrounded the infamous public housing project. Through rich archival footage and insightful interviews with former residents, Freidrichs tells us something we have failed to understand: Pruitt-Igoe was once a very good thing.
Prior to the housing project’s opening, residential properties in North St. Louis were owned by private landlords. Owners essentially turned their buildings into slums, cramming in as many occupants as possible while investing very little in upkeep. These notorious conditions all but forced the city government to do what the private sector would not - create a clean and stable environment for the city’s poor.
Initially, Pruitt-Igoe succeeded. Its residents cherished the simple privileges of having windows or a room all to themselves. Wide and naturally-lit hallways encouraged social interactions and a sense of community.
The arrangement of the towers created open space, something that simply did not exist within the slums that once stood there. Perhaps the most symbolically democratic part of living in Pruitt-Igoe was that it allowed some of the city’s poorest residents to have the best views of St. Louis, a place that had become severely segregated.
The former residents interviewed in Pruitt-Igoe Myth share simple memories of a pleasant community in its advent. These stories add a much-needed personal narrative to a place we typically view with intellectual distance. The happiness in the retelling of move-in day for Pruitt-Igoe's early residents is palpable. There are also stories of neighbors dancing in the hallways and of the excitement in seeing Christmas lights on different living room windows.
But that did not last long. Public housing maintenance was not funded by the public sector, that revenue had to come from rent payments. But low rents made it difficult to pay for proper upkeep. Pruitt-Igoe fell into a rapid decline as garbage piled up, elevators failed and windows were broken.
Rents were raised to assist with this, leaving some residents paying up to 75 percent of their income for their housing. The conditions became so poor that at one point, residents organized and withheld their rent.
Families with a male head of household could not receive welfare. As a result, residents said that fathers would move out of state (or at least pretend to) so their wives and children could stay afloat.
The city's population was shrinking fast (from 821,960 in 1930 to 452,801 in 1980), and industry was moving to the suburbs. North St. Louis, where the housing project was located, no longer offered easy access to jobs.
It was those conditions that led to Pruitt-Igoe's descent and dramatic demolition. Never in these recollections do residents blame modernism or Yamasaki.
Time has morphed the discussion of Pruitt-Igoe’s demise into a simplistic discussion of aesthetic and race. Thanks to Pruitt-Igoe Myth, that conversation can refocus on the bigger picture of events and policies that doomed it. Pruitt Igoe’s story is not about the death of modernism, it’s about the demise of the American inner city - one that no new building could ever save.