Sunday, June 26, 2011

Pruitt-Igoe and Ward 6

I highly recommend "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth," a documentary in the Silverdocs Festival (showing today [Sunday] at 7pm at AFI). Many US urban historians and urban sociologists teach about Pruitt-Igoe, the famous public housing project in St. Louis, because it has become a symbol of the supposed failure of public housing and well-intentioned government programs more generally. The photo above of its demolition in 1972 has become iconic of this failure. However, as urban scholars agree, this story of failure is a myth. The film explodes this myth in a fascinating and visually compelling way. The interviews with the former residents and urban scholars are amazing. Tickets sold out on Friday, so get your tickets soon if you want to go today.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: an Urban History – Film Trailer from the Pruitt-Igoe Myth on Vimeo.

The main lessons of the movie are
  • When Pruitt-Igoe opened in 1954, St. Louis was already beginning to experience its own implosion, like so many cities in the US. The mass movement of people and jobs to the suburbs removed both the city's tax base and Pruitt-Igoe's middle-class occupants, whose rent paid for the maintenance and security of the buildings. Within the context of the implosion of American cities and the lack of adequate funding, Pruitt-Igoe could not succeed. Public housing in NYC has been much more successful because the NYC Housing Authority has long had effective management and there was never an "under-crowding crisis" as St. Louis experienced.
  • Many outsiders blamed public housing residents for the failure of public housing, but the majority of the residents were, in fact, victims of crime and violence by individual criminals and drug gangs, which, due to the lack of security, could take over public spaces and condemned buildings.
  • Especially those who moved into Pruitt-Igoe early on truly appreciated the social life there. The interviews with the former residents are amazing. One woman said, "It was just a... wonderful place." Another woman said, "When I feel bad, I dream about Pruitt-Igoe." These women and early occupants fondly remembered the social connections they had living amongst so many families. Importantly, men often suffered greatly there, which the interviewees vividly reveal. Especially in the late 1960s, boys were the victims of extreme violence.
  • The sociologist and influential DC resident Joyce Ladner gained her sociological training by studying Pruitt-Igoe. In the documentary, she provides excellent insights into the social life of its residents and the punitive, counterproductive rules imposed on public housing residents (like the fact that unemployed men could not live with their families in public housing, which caused them and their families great suffering). Ladner was a DC Financial Control Board member (1995-98), interim president of Howard University (1994-95), senior fellow at Brookings, and was named Washingtonian of the Year in 1997.
In Ward 6, Arthur Capper, Carrollsburg, Ellen Wilson, Temple Courts, and Sursum Corda public housing projects were similarly left to fall apart, due to lack of funding to maintain the buildings and provide security. However, the Washington City Paper has questioned whether this decay actually occurred, as one resident of Ellen Wilson said, "'There was nothing wrong with those houses,' says Stewart, a wiry 65-year-old whose voice still has a squeal of youth. 'But they moved us out anyway.'" These projects were dismantled (except Sursum Corda and maybe Temple Courts?) and, unlike Pruitt-Igoe, redeveloped as mixed income areas. Gentrification has been much more extensive in Ward 6 than in the area of St. Louis where Pruitt-Igoe stood. These public housing projects were still called failures. "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" is fascinating and provides insights into the history of public housing across the US. Definitely worth a trip to AFI!

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