Forty years after demolition of America's most notorious public housing project, an architect who helped reshape America’s public housing reflects on the film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.
In the years of Pruitt-Igoe, the American city changed in ways that made it unrecognizable from a generation earlier and privileged some, leaving others in its wake. —Sylvester Brown in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is a heart-breaking and beautiful film documenting the failure of a large public housing project in St. Louis. Completed in 1956, Pruitt–Igoe consisted of 33 11-story apartment buildings: 2,870 apartments occupying 57 acres. By the end of 1976, all of them were demolished.
This story was played out in various ways in many other American cities during the second half of the twentieth century.
The film follows the form of a classical Greek tragedy. Mortals go about their business, trying to do the right thing for their families, their communities, and their cities. But larger forces cause these people and their actions to go terribly off course. In this case, it is not the gods on Mount Olympus that inflict the damage, but rather the macro-economic and social conditions of the postwar period—a “perfect storm” of economic change, crushing policy decisions, and over-reaching ambition.
The “actors” in this tragedy are real: the residents who lived through the experience. They describe their living conditions before Pruitt-Igoe was built, their joy at moving into the project, and the wonderful, magical place it was at the beginning. Then, step by step, they tell us what it was like to live through its decline: the loss of maintenance, resulting in urine-soaked elevators and rotting garbage at entries; the lack of jobs, resulting in the loss of hope and criminals moving into this unmanaged place. The story ends in fear and death.
The “chorus” is a group of erudite urban experts who describe what was happening to the economy of cities and the way in which public policy undermined the cities’ ability to function. Combined with the words of residents, their commentary vividly demonstrates the impact of public policy on people’s everyday lives.
This “classical” format is more than a conceit. It reinforces the film’s most fundamental point: The failure of Pruitt-Igoe must be seen in the context of much larger-scale issues than the life within the project itself. The events in the film took place in a city that couldn’t cope with the economic and social forces it was facing. To blame any single aspect of the programs that built and managed the project would be misleading.
The “myth” referred to in the film’s title begins with the project’s demolition. But in fact, there are many myths, all of which are about the causes of failure and where to place blame. Advocates of various interests have used Pruitt-Igoe to condemn many disparate things, often in sweeping terms—public housing, federal housing programs, the entire federal welfare system, the City of St. Louis, Modernism, architecture, urban planning, the police and fire departments, the Housing Authority, and, most unjustly, the residents themselves.
In the half-century since St. Louis’s much-publicized catastrophe, have things changed significantly?
The answer is yes. There have been a series of reforms, creative new housing policies, and innovative methods for using federal subsidies to provide affordable dwellings and rebuild the broken parts of our cities. Urban designers, architects, public officials, and citizens can extract important lessons from the painful St. Louis experience—helping all of us to avoid the disaster that culminated in Pruitt-Igoe’s shocking demolition.
Public housing and cities
The film is very helpful for the way in which it clarifies the issues. Among the major themes are these:
1. Vision versus reality: At the end of World War II, prosperity returned to America. It was a time of great optimism. Cities and their planners believed this prosperity would continue indefinitely (sound familiar?), as would the old pattern of industry within cities.
They saw the most pressing problem as the provision of decent housing for the poorest workers in those industries. Neighborhoods closest to employment had become slums with deplorable living conditions and were perceived to be bad for downtown business. An unlikely but powerful coalition of housing reform advocates, downtown business interests, politicians, and architects joined forces to dramatically alter American cities through a series of visionary plans.
The vision for St. Louis was a high-density, high-rise city with decent housing for all, modeled on the Modernist concept of towers in the park. Pruitt-Igoe was to be the first phase of this grand objective. The vision failed to become a reality because prosperity moved to the suburbs, leaving the City with fewer people (most of them poor), a declining number of jobs, and fewer financial resources with which to act.
Pruitt Igoe, the first phase of that vision in St. Louis, became an isolated island—a new kind of ghetto.
2. Slums and the American dream: In the film, urban historian Robert Fishman points out that while, in the pre-war industrial city, slums were situated close to employment, this new kind of ghetto was far removed from concentrations of jobs.
The urbanism of the traditional American city had provided a marvelous mechanism for assimilating new immigrants and helping them find their way to building a better life. No matter how dilapidated and unsanitary a family’s dwelling may have been, it was in a house or an apartment house with an address on a street. That street led to other streets and to other neighborhoods. It led to amenities and opportunities. The American, democratic grid connected every address to every other address and to the things that a person needed.
The connected grid was served by an efficient transit system of streetcars and, in some locales, subways. Once you learned how to use the city, you had a much better chance of getting ahead.
By contrast, the new kind of ghetto was isolated from other neighborhoods. People found themselves living in an isolated compound, unable to learn how to use the city because of the many barriers between themselves and the economic opportunities of the newly expanded region. In St. Louis and other cities, the projects were in increasingly deteriorating neighborhoods which eventually became wastelands. Transit service was often diminished and rarely provided access to the employment centers at the edge of the city. City services were rarely provided in part because of the dangerous conditions in and around the projects.
3. Neighborhood versus institution: Most American cities were (and still are) made up of houses, not large-scale buildings. Cities also consisted of neighborhoods, each with a range of housing types and a mix of uses that answered the needs of daily life, within walking distance.
Lining the gridded streets were cottages, mansions, row houses, apartment houses—a variety of dwelling types, all at a scale small enough to give the blocks diversity of size and type of unit as well as individual identity for the dwellings. This meant that each block had its own distinctive character. Streets were the common ground. Each house contributed to character of the street with its porch or front yard (no matter how small) and was responsible for maintaining its part of the street. The houses had windows which served as “eyes on the street,” providing a natural security.
Although neighborhoods were sustainable and stable in normal times, some were eventually undermined by slumlords who crowded as many families as possible into the buildings, inadequately maintained. Beginning in the late 19th century, housing reform movements advocated for change and developed a collection of relatively small-scale buildings that would be inserted into neighborhoods. These clean, modern structures, sometimes equipped with elevators, became a integral parts of their neighborhoods. Settlement houses and other institutions offering educational and supportive social services occupied buildings that also fit within the urban grid.
In the course of the twentieth century, low-income housing developments grew, first into larger buildings and then into campuses with their own green park-like common areas. In a dense city like New York, this worked very well. Even relatively large complexes managed to be absorbed within the fabric of the city. Projects like those developed by the Garment Workers Union are, to this day, integral parts of the city.
In most other cities, housing projects used the same large-scale, high-rise building forms, no matter what the context. Often their campuses spread across sites equivalent to several blocks of a traditional city. These concentrations of public housing stood apart from neighborhoods. The “project” replaced the “neighborhood.” It lacked the diversity, human scale, and mix of uses that had made traditional neighborhoods function.
Most critically, the projects lost the kind of urbanism that connects every dwelling to every other. Instead of houses lining a street, there were “units,” tenuously connected to the city by way of a particularly complicated system of long, unsupervised corridors, elevators, and stairs. In Pruitt Igoe, “skip-stop” elevators stopped only at the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth floors, forcing residents to use stairs. The floors with elevator stops had large communal corridors, laundry rooms, community rooms, and garbage chutes. Instead of the “common ground” of the street outside your door, there was a labyrinth of “common areas” that had to be maintained and supervised. The neighborhood had been replaced by an institution.
4. Maintenance and security: Once housing became institutional, it was necessary to rely on institutional forms of maintenance and security. Initially, there was enough money to do so. But in time, the money was no longer available to pay for the sophisticated level of maintenance and security that the physical form of the community required. The project began to fail.
Lacking direct connections between dwelling and the public realm, the common areas became vulnerable to disorder and misbehavior. There were no individual properties that could contribute to the maintenance of the public realm. The “eyes” were high up in the air, unable to exert an impact on what happened on the ground. And there were certainly no eyes on the corridors, stairs, or elevator lobbies, which became no-man’s-lands. It was easy for criminals to take control.
In the film, residents tell us that in the face of these deteriorating conditions, they began to see the situation as hopeless. Some became angry and responded with vandalism. Management tried to protect the property with devices such as cages around light fixtures and punitive rules which demoralized and angered the residents even more, because they felt they were being treated like criminals. Hostility between management and tenants led to violence.
The voices of the former residents describe how they began to organize to protest the conditions. They say that only when they rebelled in a series of rent strikes were they able to have a voice in how the project was managed. But by then it was too late. The project was too big, too unmanageable—in the words of the narrator: the experiment had gone terribly awry.
I would argue that the problems were caused in part by housing policies and in part by failures of urban design and architecture. Our profession is not helpless in the face of these issues. In fact, Pruitt-Igoe’s spectacular and much-publicized failure caused all those involved with housing and cities to rethink how to provide low-income housing and how to redevelop failing parts of cities. In the years since Pruitt-Igoe came down, major reforms have been put in place.
One lesson is that it is essential to build neighborhoods not just housing.
Richard Baron was a young legal defense attorney in St. Louis during the Pruitt-Igoe years. He did much to establish tenants’ rights organizations and find ways of engaging the tenants in the management of their community.
He soon realized that legal methods were not enough to bring about change. The physical form of the developments needed to become neighborhoods instead of low-income projects. Most importantly, neighborhoods needed a mix of incomes if they were to operate as stable communities. Baron also recognized that supportive social services and education were critical. For the past 35 years, he and his company, McCormack Baron Salazar, have pioneered mixed-income community development in previously troubled urban neighborhoods, achieving considerable success. Some of those efforts are near where Pruitt-Igoe stood.
St. Louis was not the only city where people learned from public housing disasters. In Baltimore, Jim Rouse concluded that the way to revive inner-city neighborhoods was through building houses for sale. He found ways to subsidize new and renovated housing within some of Baltimore’s most troubled areas. In many cities, community development corporations were formed to find ways of using tax credit programs, Section 8 rent subsidies, and private investment to build small-scale infill projects in troubled neighborhoods.
These approaches became part of the impetus for HUD’s HOPE VI program under Henry Cisneros. HOPE VI replaced failed public housing projects with mixed-income neighborhoods. These transformations required the engagement of residents, citizens in surrounding neighborhoods, and the business leadership of their cities. The change of approach made it possible to use a combination of public and private financing.
Early in the HOPE VI Program, Henry Cisneros formed a partnership with the Congress for the New Urbanism to develop design criteria and to train HUD staff in urbanism. The criteria were used as part of the funding application process. Proposals for funding required that the principles of the CNU Charter be followed.
The altered approach required a plan created by the community—a plan that could be shown to fit into the city and support neighborhood revitalization. The results, for the most part, have had a positive impact on cities and on the lives of residents. Pruitt-Igoe was demolished after operating for only 20 years. The earliest of the HOPE VI projects are now 15 years old and seem to be thriving. So it seems that some lessons have been learned.
My own most recent experience was with the rebuilding of the Lafitte public housing project in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The new Faubourg Lafitte, has a range of housing types, on the reconstructed grid of the city. It was developed in a sometimes stormy public process. In the course of designing and building it, the developers, Enterprise Homes and Providence Homes, worked with a broad range of residents and citizens. Residents are engaged in its management and in organizing the services they need. Faubourg Lafitte looks like an extension of the traditional city, not a new form imposed on it.
I am now acting as an adviser to Swan Housing, the developer that is replacing the infamous Robin Hood Gardens project in East London. The harsh New Brutalist vision of architects Alison and Peter Smithson will be torn down, replaced by a very high-density development. The challenge will be to make sure that the lessons of the last 50 years can be incorporated into a new high-rise community and that the development can be integrated into the fabric of the city.
Clearly, there is much more we could learn from Pruitt-Igoe. For example, just as Pruitt Igoe resulted from an overly optimistic view of the economy of cities, the current crisis resulted from the burst bubble of overly optimistic projections of suburban growth. That overoptimism has taken a toll on the outermost reaches of suburban sprawl. The newest suburbs are suffering now, as inner cities suffered a few decades ago. Ironically, while the newest suburbs are in trouble, many center cities are thriving again. In spite of recent efforts at regional planning, we have not learned how to find the right balance between expansion of cities and reinforcement of their centers.
The Section 8 program, which provides subsidies to low-income renters, has been very successful in many situations, but is now posing a serious problem for many inner-city working-class neighborhoods. Part of the program provides subsidies to building owners, without adequate management or supportive services. The result is a smaller-scale version of the problem cities faced in the 19th Century with slum lords. New approaches are needed.
Greek tragedies were more than entertainment. The audience was meant to have a catharsis, to be transformed by the experience. The terrible tragedy of Pruitt-Igoe provided just such a catharsis for our country and certainly for the professions involved in building. The format of the film is therefore fitting.
The film ends with tearful recollections of the good and bad times at Pruitt-Igoe. It makes the events so vivid that we forget they took place 50 years ago. It does not deal with the reforms that have taken place as a result of the experience. But that would remove the film from the realm of tragedy, and reduce its power. The film's director, Chad Friedrichs, and his collaborators made what seems to me to be an astute decision. We still need the catharsis.
The closing words of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth continue to haunt me:
History has patterns, but it doesn’t repeat.
The city will change, but in different ways than before.
In the years of Pruitt-Igoe, the American city changed in ways that made it unrecognizable from a generation earlier and privileged some, leaving others in its wake.
The city will change but in ways different than before.
The next time the city changes, remember Pruitt-Igoe.
The 83-minute film, accompanied by a 30-minute documentary from 1970, a 12-minute site tour, and a director's commentary, and extra footage of residents' stories, is available on a video for home use from the Pruitt-Igoe Myth website for $25.95.
With David Lewis, Ray Gindroz co-founded Urban Design Associates in 1964. Their first commission was a Ford Foundation study to find ways of designing neighborhoods and schools that would make racial integration acheivable in Pittsburgh. Much of UDA's work over the last 50 years has been in mixed-income housing and inner-city neighborhoods. Some has involved replacing failed projects of various types, including public housing and parking garages from the 1960s and ‘70s. The firm has designed more than 40 mixed-income developments, including HOPE VI projects. During the 1990s, Gindroz chaired the CNU Inner City Task Force, which worked with HUD to develop design standards. Between 2008 and 2010 he chaired CNU.
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