Film Review: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

By Josh Brandon

“It began as a housing marvel. Two decades later, it ended in rubble.”

Pruitt-Igoe-Myth-Poster-202x300In 1972, the St Louis Housing Authority put dynamite to the massive Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, a social housing project that was once home to 15,000 people. By then, years of crime, vandalism and urban decay had left the project with few defenders. The iconic image of the demolition of these high-rise structures became a symbol for the problems of mid-century modernist architecture. For a generation of social and civic planners in the US, Pruitt-Igoe became ideological shorthand for the inevitability of failure of large-scale social housing interventions.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: an Urban History directed by filmmaker, Chad Freidrichs, takes aim at the central myths embodied in this ideology. Using interviews with past residents, academics who have studied Pruitt-Igoe’s history, combined with documentary footage from the period, the film demonstrates that the project failed not because of design flaws in the architecture or because of inherent problems with social housing, but because of a complicated and interrelated series of failures of social policy, racism and urban decline in US cities. Welfare policies that systematically worked to break up black families, jobs and development shifting from the inner city to the suburbs and a culture of racist exclusion all played their part in Pruitt-Igoe’s demise.

Ultimately, the project’s financial sustainability was undercut at the very start by federal US funding policies that determined that subsidies could only go to capital costs, but that on-going operating costs would need to be paid out of rent. This left Housing Authorities with the stark choice between making shortcuts on maintenance or raising rents to unaffordable levels. With Canadian social housing projects facing a phasing of operating grants over the next few decades, Pruitt-Igoe’s demise should serve as a warning.

The most compelling scenes of the film are interviews with former tenants reminiscing about the positive features of Pruitt-Igoe and the community that developed there. When properly supported and maintained, social housing can provide real homes for the people who live there. As Jim Silver demonstrates in Good Places to Live: Poverty and Public Housing in Canada, large-scale social housing suffers unjustly from stereotypes of violence and alienation. With proper attention to maintenance, and investment in community services, the problems often associated with social housing can be alleviated.

In contrast to St. Louis, Manitoba Housing has dedicated significant investments in renovating social housing in recent years. Sarah Cooper’s Its Getting Great: Government Investment in Gilbert Park and Lord Selkirk Park documents what can happen when governments take investing in community as important.

“The social changes that tenants noticed in Gilbert Park and Lord Selkirk Park – people seeing and getting to know neighbours, using their front yards, feeling safer and more hopeful than a few years ago, among others, suggest that renovations and other changes are having and impact on quality of life in the two areas.”

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth should be watched by housing policy researchers and advocates as a example of what can happen when these investments do not occur.

Josh Brandon is a Housing and Community Development Researcher with CCPA-MB