The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History

Pruitt–Igoe was a housing project built in 1956 in St. Louis, Missouri. The complex was designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, who went on to design the World Trade Center. The 33 eleven-story buildings of Pruitt-Igoe were billed as the solution to the overcrowding and deterioration that plagued inner-city St. Louis. However, by 1971, Pruitt–Igoe housed only six hundred people in seventeen buildings; the other sixteen were boarded up. On March 16, 1972 – 16 years after construction was finished – the first of the complex’s 33 buildings was demolished by the federal government. The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe came to signify the failure of many midcentury concepts: public housing, government sponsorship and Modernism in general.

How did such a large-scale project fail so quickly? A common explanation finds cause in the failure of real-world application of Corbusian towers-in-the-park.  According to another standard account, violence, crime, and drugs plagued the housing project from nearly the beginning as it became a “dumping ground” for the poorest city residents.  Housing project residents could not adapt to high-rise city life and destroyed Pruitt-Igoe.

The quick and simple transition from hope to disillusionment – without much analysis – is the standard structure of the Pruitt-Igoe narrative. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History seeks to present a more nuanced view of the Pruitt-Igoe story, by examining the interests involved in Pruitt-Igoe’s creation and re-evaluating the stigma associated with the project. The film contextualizes Pruitt-Igoe in the large-scale federal urban renewal program of the 1950s and 1960s. Prompting the process of mass suburbanization, federal policies emptied American cities of their residents, businesses, and industries. Further, the film explores the effects of federal legislation on the rapidly de-industrializing St. Louis, parceled out to downtown interests and increasingly segregated by class and race.

The story of Pruitt-Igoe remains relevant to American cities in the 21st Century.  Though we have come a long way from apocalyptic predictions of the destruction of our cities through suburbanization, affordable housing continues to be a contested and vital issue.  The complex lessons of Pruitt-Igoe must be remembered by society and by the architects, urban planners, developers, and public officials who will be tasked with solving future housing issues.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is being screened at the IFC Center – part of the Stanger than Fiction documentary series – on Tuesday June 28th; at 8pm. Tickets can be purchased here.

 

Images courtesy of the Pruitt-Igoe Myth.

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