When the Pruitt-Igoe housing project opened to considerable fanfare back in 1956, its 33 high-rise towers were hailed as a proud symbol of the future of American urban renewal. Located on a 57-acre tract on St. Louis’ north side, the federally-funded development had been created to house 12,000 African-American refugees from the city’s crumbling slums.
However, the federal government only built Pruitt-Igoe, but subsequently declined to underwrite its maintenance. Abandoned by the public sector, the costly burden of the premises’ upkeep was immediately shifted to the shoulders of its poor and working-class tenants.
Consequently, it was merely a matter of time before the same host of ghetto woes they had just escaped began to manifest again around Pruitt-Igoe, since its modest tax base inexorably led to a rapid deterioration of infrastructure and support services. Spiraling from a utopian oasis into a neverending nightmare, the apartments’ vacancy rate escalated as the place became infested with drugs, prostitution and violent crime.
The upshot is that, less than two decades after it was built, Pruitt-Igoe was reluctantly ordered flattened via planned detonation, once the bureaucrats, architects and politicians were forced to face the fact that their grand experiment had failed. All of the above is recounted in captivating fashion (including the iconic video of the project’s implosion by dynamite) in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a chilling documentary directed by Chad Freidrichs.
What makes the movie oh so engaging are the earnest reminiscences by former residents, most of whom recount a similar sorry story about how their initial enthusiasm about the complex had ultimately been supplanted by a deep bitterness and distrust of the establishment. Today, courtesy of 20-20 hindsight, it is easy for them to see that Pruitt-Igoe was never really given a chance to blossom once it had been marginalized by polite society as a haven for crooks, cheats and Welfare Queens deserving of their lot.
A thought-provoking, cinematic picking of the bones of the scattered exoskeleton of a once-promising “poor man’s penthouse.”