Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Pruitt-Igoe Revisited, Part 1

The Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis came to symbolize much more than its 33 eleven-story buildings (1). Pruitt-Igoe took on iconic status as a monumental or civilizational failure. The narrative condemning Pruitt-Igoe followed a general plotline: in the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe had been built with great acclaim and then quickly descended into chaos, crime, and violence, which led the city of St. Louis to demolish the entire project just twenty years later.
Figure 1: 1956 Aerial View of Pruitt-Igoe and Vaughn Housing Projects (Public domain image).

As the images of its physical implosion circulated through the media worldwide, the project gained global symbolism as a self-imploding failure:
Figure 2: Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe building in 1972 (Public domain image).
A wide range of people and institutions were simultaneously blamed for the great hubris that brought Pruitt-Igoe’s demise: modernist architecture, urban planners, the low-income residents, African Americans, the St. Louis city government, public housing, the welfare state, and so on (2). In these intertwining narratives, the supposed failure of Pruitt-Igoe even began at its very origins, as a local St. Louis television station announced: “Pruitt-Igoe was doomed the day it left the drawing boards” (3). Architecture theorist Charles Jencks outrageously declared, "Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 3.32pm (or thereabouts)," the time of the demolition shown in figure 1. The use of Pruitt-Igoe to condemn modernity, as well as the people and institutions listed above, is clearly demonstrated in Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi (start from 2:09), which is worth watching:

Most urban planners, architects, sociologists, and government officials can recite all that I have written above because, in their training, Pruitt-Igoe is taught as a key mythical cautionary tale. This tale is taken as "common sense" knowledge about modernist architecture, earlier forms of urban planning, the behavior of low-income residents living separately from more wealthy people, the behavior of African Americans living separately from whites, the "reality" of public housing, the destruction caused by state actions to create housing, etc. This tale about Pruitt-Igoe has shaped policy and academia for decades. It is false, false about Pruitt-Igoe specifically and about public housing and its residents more generally. 

In St. Louis, I read through the papers of A. J. Wilson, the Executive Secretary to Democratic St. Louis Mayor Alfonso J. Cervantes (1971-1973) and to Democratic St. Louis Mayor John H. Poelker (1973-1976). These mayors regularly worked on issues and concerns at Pruitt-Igoe. In Wilson's papers, I found a 1971 letter from a senior citizen living in Pruitt-Igoe to Mayor Cervantes. Mrs. James Johnson wrote:
And we are concerned citizens and we don’t want to move. We have nowhere to move and we don’t want to move. We love this place. We been here 16 years and we vote in every election and vote a democrat ticket and I thank you. [You] should look into this matter for us. We feel since you are our mayor you should help us stay here. Our committee peoples can’t do nothing if you don’t help. Thanks. (4)
What kind of world does this letter illuminate? What does the "common sense" narrative about Pruitt-Igoe conceal? My next installments will lay this out. 


(1) Pruitt-Igoe had 33 buildings. Reports sometime referred to 43 buildings, but there were, in fact, 43 addresses for 33 buildings. 

(2) R. Montgomery. 1985. "Pruitt-Igoe: Policy Failure or Societal Symptom." In B. Checkoway and C. V. Patton, eds, The Metropolitan Midwest: Policy Problems and Prospects of Change. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p. 240.

(3) Washington University Archives, A. J. Wilson Papers, Wua00369, Box 04, Pruitt-Igoe 1970s, File: Housing - Pruitt-Igoe, 1971-1972, Folder 2, KMOX editorial, June 23, 1971. The editorial also stated that any further funds proposed to renovate the project would be a “futile repetition of other costly efforts to rectify a monumental error in the project’s original concept.” In the footnotes, I refer to these archives as the “Wilson Papers.” 

(4) Wilson Papers, Box 05, Pruitt-Igoe 1970s, File: Pruitt-Igoe Housing, 1969-1972, Folder 1. Letter from Mrs. James Johnson, 2433 O'Fallon, Apt. 1000, Aug. 30, 1971. Emphasis added.

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