The documentary film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is arguably the best historical record available of the ill-fated St. Louis high-rise housing project, completed in 1956 and demolished with much publicity in the early 1970s. The film combines wrenching interviews with articulate former residents—many of whom spent their formative childhood years in the project in its earlier, more optimistic phase—extensive period clips, and a limited amount of accessible scholarly commentary to create an extraordinary viewing experience. The Pruitt-Igoe story is part of one of the best-known episodes in the twentieth-century migration of many African Americans from poverty in the rural South to what until the 1950s were plentiful low-wage industrial jobs in northern industrial cities.
When it was begun in 1950 with federal funding and the enthusiastic support of white St. Louis politicians and civic leaders, the Pruitt-Igoe project was considered innovative because it combined what was intended as a whites-only public housing “district,” the William Igoe Homes, with an adjacent black “district,” the Captain Wendell O. Pruitt Homes (named for an African American World War II pilot, one of the Tuskegee Airmen). The film refreshingly does not waste much time on the now-tired controversy over whether the project’s spectacular failure was the result of the hubris of modern architects inspired by Le Corbusier and CIAM or some combination of racist institutional malevolence and tenant criminality. Instead, it reveals clearly that although the project was indeed built (at great expense) without many of the amenities usually found in American multifamily housing of any kind, it was nonetheless deeply appreciated by many of its first tenants. Rare film footage of the elegantly furnished apartments and cheerful families, many of whom were rehoused from the crumbling old rental buildings without indoor plumbing that were cleared for its construction, calls to mind parallel postwar mass housing efforts in Scandinavia, Great Britain, Latin America, and Japan.
At the same time, the film deftly traces the complicated mixture of factors that led to Pruitt-Igoe’s rapid downward spiral into a notoriously dangerous place. It makes clear that the architectural idealism of Minoru Yamasaki, the project’s chief designer, became enmeshed with a relatively cynical effort by downtown business interests to rid their immediate vicinity of poor African American neighbors. Yamasaki designed the project with open galleries on every third floor that were intended not only as skip-stop elevator lobbies but also as light-filled play areas for small children under close parental supervision. He also called for large green areas around the thirty-three eleven-story towers, with extensive landscaping that would include public recreational and toilet facilities—facilities that were left unbuilt. The project’s part in intensifying the deep underlying racism of the postwar national spatial patterns that shaped cities like St. Louis is traced here in detail through the use of many period photos and extraordinary film clips of interviews with white suburban residents, whose outlook was reminiscent of apartheid-era South Africa. Robert Fishman’s commentary offers clear and concise summaries of key aspects of this now well-known chapter in American urban history, augmented by Joseph Heathcott’s informed comments on the urban history of St. Louis and its midcentury public housing program. Washington University–educated sociologist Joyce Ladner, who studied Pruitt-Igoe’s female residents while a graduate student in the mid-1960s, provides an expert link between those residents and her academic social research, informed by her own upbringing in rural Mississippi.
The voices of the residents themselves are the film’s most compelling, however. Among these is the voice of Sylvester Brown Jr., now a St. Louis journalist and mentor to urban youth. Brown’s first-person account of recently revisiting the now-vacant, overgrown site opens the film, and his memories of living there as a child serve to introduce the topic of the rampant violence that became a key aspect of life there. This violence, which developed among boys in the project, dramatically worsened as Supreme Court decisions allowed middle-class African American residents to move out and into better housing in formerly all-white parts of North St. Louis and elsewhere. At the same time, the St. Louis Public Housing Authority did not maintain the project properly, claiming lack of funding. Desperate for tenants, in the 1960s Pruitt-Igoe began to rent to state welfare recipients, a majority of whom were single mothers and their children displaced from the massive slum clearances elsewhere in the city. Brown describes in chilling detail the effects of the mindless welfare department rules that required that no men be present overnight in the homes, rules that resulted in some families breaking up and led to a world of covert activities.
The film also documents, with news footage and interviews with former residents, the destructive back-and-forth that emerged between the cash-strapped housing authority, whose entire budget depended on tenant rents, and the increasingly marginalized residents, many of whom were unable to find employment in the declining industrial economy of St. Louis after 1960. This resulted in a situation where even emergency responders and deliverymen refused to enter the constantly vandalized and more than half-vacant project. Film footage of the activists involved in the now largely forgotten 1969 rent strike at Pruitt-Igoe is included, poignantly highlighting the immensity of this failure of American midcentury liberalism to solve still ongoing urban and racial issues.
The film does not linger excessively over Pruitt-Igoe’s well-known demolition—in two stages, one in 1972 (three buildings) and the other in 1975 (thirty buildings)—or focus much on the way the failure of the project became an important symbol for the rejection of modern architecture by postmodernism and New Urbanism. That topic has been extensively examined by scholars such as Katherine Bristol, whose 1991 Journal of Architectural Education article gave this film its title, and Alexander von Hoffman, whose essay published in 2000 offers many details about the specifics of the process that led to the construction of Pruitt-Igoe and the four other similar projects built in St. Louis around the same time.1 Both Bristol and von Hoffman are acknowledged, along with many other scholars, in the film’s closing credits.
Only a few minor criticisms might be made about The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. One is that it does not emphasize enough that when American public housing first appeared as a New Deal labor movement agenda issue in the 1930s, it was not initially intended primarily as segregated housing for African Americans. On the contrary, the most publicized early projects in the 1930s were for whites only, and this was also true of Pruitt-Igoe’s immediate predecessor, the now-demolished Cochran Gardens (1949), designed by George F. Hellmuth, one of the architects, along with Yamasaki, of Pruitt-Igoe and other similar St. Louis housing projects. One might wish also that the filmmakers had addressed the way that public housing in general became redefined as undesirable and only for African Americans by the 1960s, after the beginning of the civil rights movement. Also unaddressed is the fact that the clearance of the site’s existing neighborhood destroyed an area of nineteenth-century historic buildings that would today be highly prized by historic preservationists. A final, more minor criticism is the lack of mention of the $5 million federal effort undertaken in 1965 to remodel Pruitt-Igoe to remedy its problems. Following Jane Jacobs’s then-new ideas, Oscar Newman, a Washington University architecture faculty member in the 1960s, developed his influential concept of the need for defined, resident-observed urban spaces, as described in his book Defensible Space (1972). Newman’s work was done with sociologist Lee Rainwater, whose book Behind Ghetto Walls: Black Families in a Federal Slum (1970) offers yet more material about life in the project. These doomed efforts lend support to Sylvester Brown’s comment late in the film that “the experiment had gone awry.” These minor criticisms, however, are in no way intended to detract from the immense accomplishment of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which should find a wide audience in the academy and beyond.
Katherine Bristol, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Journal of Architectural Education 44, no. 3 (May 1991), 163–71; Alexander von Hoffmann, “Why They Built Pruitt-Igoe,” in From Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America, ed. John F. Bauman, Roger Biles, and Kristin M. Szylvian (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 180–205.