Pruitt-Igoe: An On-Campus Screening and Discussion

Last semester, ASPD organized for a screening of Chad Freidrichs’ The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History and for some reason, I was thinking about the experience today.

Although fewer students than expected were able to make the event, the discussion afterward showcased Sol Price students abilities to both filter information and raise questions about how the lessons of Pruitt-Igoe relate to today’s world.

Pruitt-Igoe, a public housing project in St. Louis, was completed in 1956 and systematically demolished between 1972 and 1976. It is a standard case study for failures in both architectural modernism and the public sector. However, the documentary has a macro-level understanding of the project’s failure. The combination of the public sector fronting the money for the construction of the project but not the ongoing necessary maintenance and the modernist idea of building-in-a-park leading to a decreased sense of community absolutely played a part in the collapse of the project, but it’s important to keep in mind that the situation was much more complex than these base answers.

For one, the documentary pointed out a clear misunderstanding between residents and the Housing Authority over who was responsible for what. During a rent strike, a Housing Authority official stated that the residents were only harming themselves since rent money was funneled into the maintenance of the building. The residents said that the Housing Authority’s lack of funding wasn’t their problem and that it was the agency’s responsibility to maintain the buildings.

Who’s responsibility was it? A more open line of communication was obviously needed, and participatory planning methods such as regularly-held public meetings could have alleviated, if not solved, this problem. These methods seem to be common sense and the basis of our curriculum, but the city of St. Louis, the Housing Authority, and the residents of Pruitt-Igoe did not appear to be fully utilizing them, or using them at all. As planners, we should see this as the Housing Authority and city of St. Louis’ responsibility, residents should not be expected to understand the complexities of a project and its budgeting just on the basis that they live there, the planners should have been open about the expected responsibility of the residents from the beginning.

The documentary also highlighted several interviews of former tenants who told the story of a lively, friendly community that got ransacked by gangs, crime, and broken windows theory running amuck. The interviews, ranging from people who were original tenants and some who moved out as the project was falling apart, provided details that make the situation far more gray than black and white.

As the narrator told some of the rules that residents had to abide by, including the banning of phone and television service, the most shocking rule was that no jobless able-bodied male was allowed to live in the project. On paper, and from a purely economic stand-point, the policies make sense, at least to me. If a tenant can afford a phone-line, can’t they afford to pay more rent? If a jobless male lives in a low-rent apartment, what encourages them to seek work? But, public policy made these rules far less sensible. Keeping in mind that this project was both in the south and at the height of the civil rights movement, racial tension were never higher, so for black father’s looking for work, possibilities were few and far between. Combine this with the white flight to the suburbs that started the abandoning of Puitt-Igoe, and it’s no wonder the project failed.

With the design, public policy, and a lack of clarity between all participants, Pruitt-Igoe is not a symbol of failure for the public sector, but the planning profession as a whole. This is an important project to closely examine and attempt to understand, and Sol Price is lucky to have a student organization like ASPD that holds screenings such as this one. Next time, (hopefully this semester!) I hope the room will be at capacity, for an even more stimulating post-screening conversation.

– Stephanie Byrd, 2nd Year MPL, Concentration: Design and Preservation of the Built Environment

The implosion of Pruitt-Igoe
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