I love historical documentaries, partly because they usually include personal stories. The other day I saw The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, an independent film documenting the rise and fall of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in downtown St. Louis. All I knew of the project was that it was a controversial symbol generally interpreted as either a failure of public housing or a failure of the poor (especially black poor) to behave civilly, or both. I learned so much from the film and the discussion after with the film producer, a representative of our local history museum, and several former inhabitants of the project. There’s a huge story there, about as huge as the project, which I did not know occupied 57 acres! Apparently the media had its own big failure then by neglecting to explain all the complexities and instead focusing on a simple, negative agenda that became known worldwide. Most of the photos that exist of the project are of it being destroyed.
Much of the details of Pruitt Igoe can now be found online, but not everything. The documentary can’t say everything either in its limited time. That’s where the personal stories come in. Some are in the film, but there’s more to it. Three siblings of a family of fourteen were on stage following the film to answer questions. We learned that able-bodied men, including fathers, were not allowed to live in the development. They could go out and support themselves and let the government provide for their families. Fathers were not to be anywhere near the area, I guess lest some of that free government money ended up in their able hands.
While the siblings missed their father dearly and were resentful of the social workers and rules that kept him away, they said they and others had wonderful memories of the projects—the sense of community and the strong bonds among family, how every child had his or her own bed and a nice place to live – for a while. The cost and difficulties of maintaining thirty-three eleven-story buildings and the grounds were not realistically considered and the buildings began to deteriorate.
White people of the Igoe section of the segregated project began to leave, along with businesses and the rest of the city population, to new suburbs where the cost of land and houses was cheaper than land and renting in the city. Telling is that there are few stories of white people living in the project because they could find jobs more easily and afford to escape, particularly into the new suburban whites-only areas. The projects were but a temporary housing situation for them. As the buildings emptied, crime moved in. When the projects were finally destroyed—only twenty years after they were built—many residents cried. That had been their home, and they had good memories. Every spring a reunion is held with several hundred people who laugh and tell stories of good times and bad.
It wasn’t all bad. The drugs and crime came in later years and was bad outside the projects, too, but these are not the stories we’ve been told. The real stories include strong mothers holding together strong families, kids having a place to sleep and play safely, good schools nearby for them, adult education classes offered in a nearby church – hundreds attended those classes. The representative from our history museum said the public memory of Pruitt-Igoe is fading as time goes along and former inhabitants pass away. That’s why capturing the stories is important. To capture the side the news didn’t tell. To destroy the myth and acknowledge a perfect storm of factors. Public housing is not all bad, modern architecture is not all bad, and poor black people are not all bad.
*Interesting to note, the main architect of Pruitt-Igoe was Minoru Yamasaki, working within the confines of federal government rules and opinions. He was also the architect of the World Trade Center, which was being built as Pruitt-Igoe was being torn down and which in turn was later destroyed, but by terrorists. Yamasaki is also the architect of the original portion of Lambert St. Louis Airport.