Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

Places that were once busy centres of human activity that have been abandoned have long held a fascination for me. Anyone who's read the blog here for a while knows that closed roads, constructions that once conveyed people from place to place, had names and places on the map, but have been given up to fall back into nature and lie forgotten, really appeal to me. Since roads are, practically, one-dimensional, it's really not that exceptional for this to happen to them. You're letting a clearance 30-50 feet wide, of whatever finite length, drift away from consciousness for the grass to grow and the trees to advance and close up again.

It's a lot less common, though, for large areas of land, especially within cities, to be afforded this kind of treatment. You will see the occasional vacant lot here and there... a business that failed, a home on a corner that was razed, and the land given back to the kids as an ersatz playground for a time. But you don't usually see block after block after block fall back to a wilderness.

Welcome to Pruitt-Igoe.

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Pruitt-Igoe was a public housing development in St. Louis, conceived of in after World War II, built in the mid-1950s, and finally pulled down not quite 20 years later... a moment that, in certain quarters, has become synonymous with "the death of modernism". Designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, who would later design New York's World Trade Center, it's been used ever since by friends and foes alike of public housing solutions as the test case for either how not to do the job, or why not to attempt it in the first place. The site consisted, in the main, of 33 11-storey slab apartment buildings, the last of which came down in 1974, and the majority of the 57-acre site has remained vacant ever since. Any serious attempt to keep the grounds clear ended in the 1990s, with the result being that a wild forest has sprung up in the middle of St. Louis over the past two decades.

I became aware of the Pruitt-Igoe project sometime last year, and a 2011 documentary made about it at the same time. I finally managed to buy a copy of the documentary. I've watched it a couple of times this week, both with and without the director's commentary, as well as the collateral bonuses that came with it. It's a compelling and moving story of something that could have been greater, a fine idea that failed in its execution. The story is largely told in the words of people who lived there, either as children or as young renters, and it's surprising how much they cared for the place, and care for it even now.

It's typical to put the failure of "the projects", wherever they are, down to the residents. Not to mince words, but in much of the Western world, and the US in particular, the residents are typically poor black people. The story of Pruitt-Igoe might not be typical of every case, but its realities are revealing. The policies of various levels of government, largely blind to one another, converged in a perfect storm that made the failure of Pruitt-Igoe inevitable: it was doomed from the start.

Part of the problem was the nature of St. Louis itself. The city divorced itself from its county in the 1870s. At the time, it still had plenty of room to grow into. But by the time Pruitt-Igoe was being built, St. Louis had grown to its legal limits; it had nowhere to grow. Since it was no longer part of St. Louis County, it had no means to appropriate more land, or slowly amalgamate the new communities growing just outside its bounds. The suburbs that beckoned to the middle class of St. Louis were beyond the reach of the city, and with every family that left for a new home on a spacious lot, the tax base of the city shrank, along with its population. Pruitt-Igoe was conceived at a time when St. Louis was projected to continue to grow in terms of both population and tax revenue. But its population in fact peaked at around the time the project was completed, and then dropped precipitously. What this meant was that St. Louis had less and less money as the years went by to pay for the upkeep of a city that remained physically the same size, with the same infrastructure to maintain. Things began to slip.

Pruitt-Igoe was built with federal money... even then, it was starved of what it needed by the Korean War. Design specs were ignored and compromised, so even from the start, construction was not what it could have been. But private housing developers saw the projects as a threat, and saw to it that no federal funding for the upkeep of the project could be furnished. The US federal government could help build Pruitt-Igoe, but had to immediately abandon it at birth. St. Louis's housing department was at arm's length to the city and did not have a means to tap into city revenues in aid of its agencies; in fact, the only money available for the upkeep of Pruitt-Igoe was the revenue generated from the rents of the tenants themselves. Ironically, because Pruitt-Igoe was conceived of as a bootstrapping operation to house people till they could afford better accommodations, a policy was in place stipulating that if the income of a tenant rose above a certain threshold, that tenant had to vacate the project. So on the one hand, maintenance was tied to the rent of the tenants, geared to income; but on the other, the wealthiest tenants were chased away, by law. Interviewees in the movie who lived there at the start talked about how each building had its own caretaker, but how that quickly went by the boards as the money supply tightened. By the 1960s, any family that could afford to move out, had. White families, of which there were many to start with, were completely absent by then.

The most shocking moment in the movie comes when one woman, a child at the time, reveals that a state policy dictated that federal child assistance money (the actually distribution of which was determined by state rules) would not accrue to any family in which the principal breadwinner was present and able-bodied. Typically, this mean the husband. And this woman's parents were forced, by the logic of the situation, to conclude that their children would be better off if he left the home. That terrible logic occurred to any family in Pruitt-Igoe where the number of children meant that assistance money outstripped that provided even by working fathers. Money for a better life for the children was contingent, effectively, on the creation of fatherless single-parent families, institutionalized by law. The realization hits you like a bombshell.

And so throughout the 1960s, the trends that plagued Pruitt-Igoe were its location in a city of shrinking demographics and taxation with no means to increase either; the eviction of the highest-paid tenants in a project where upkeep was funded solely by rental income, with the resulting decay of the site; and a community which financially rewarded the abandonment of families by the male role model, and institutionalized children, and in particular young men, growing up fatherless. And, of course, the blame for the results fell largely on the shoulders of the tenants themselves; the excuse for racist attitudes that, really, never went away.

For all that, it's astonishing to see the photos of people consolidating and coming together to save the community. To identify with it and as part of it. How much the interviewees cherished the place and the experiences of it, especially in its early years, but even right up to the end. One woman, who went on to be a St. Louis police officer after the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe, was moved to tears by her remembrances of the Christmases there, and watching the place come down. For all that it came to represent to others of everything that was wrong with public housing, it was loved, at least by some.

It's a fascinating documentary that takes an institution and examines it from the human level at which it was truly experienced, and yet manages to frame that with the big picture of the forces that kept it from succeeding. One interviewee remarks that if the place had been properly maintained, she believes it would be standing today, and the community that fought to exist there still would. It's an interesting speculation, and when you're apprised of the strikes against the place from the start that needn't have been so, it's one that's hard to dismiss.

See it. Don't miss the 10-minuted guided tour of the site as it exists today in the extras.


jim said...

Thanks for the tip about this doco, man. I'll bookmark it for later.

Also check out this blog about a neighborhood the St. Louis airport bought and slowly tore down, house by house. Written by a former resident.

barefoot hiker said...

Thanks, Jim, I remember that site from several years ago but could not remember for the life of me what it was called or how to find it again. :)