Monday, April 16, 2018

Pruitt-Igoe Revisited, Part 2

I always find it surprising that all sorts of people can talk so easily about the "failures" of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis without much knowledge of the development at all.
Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Wikimedia Commons
They usually repeat a conventional story, which I discussed in my previous post: in the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe had been built with great acclaim and awards, and then quickly descended into chaos, crime, and violence due to housing people (especially low-income people) in multi-story modernist buildings, the lack of private property and "defensible space" in public housing, the concentration of low-income residents living separately from more wealthy people, the concentration of African Americans living separately from whites, the arrogance of early urban planners (the false opposition of Robert Moses vs. Jane Jacobs), the chaos and disaster somehow inherent in public housing or somehow associated with African Americans or low-income people, and so on. This narrative assumes that public housing will always fail, the residents must be freed from the space (even though they were always free to move elsewhere, but likely had other constraints to doing so), and the development must be replaced with a private alternative. The ease of knowing and understanding this narrative suggests to me that it is a fundamental American story or myth about cities, known perhaps subconsciously. Who subscribes to this myth? middle-class people? white professionals? gentrifiers? In its certainty and its lack of interest in other perspectives, it resembles the perspective of colonial rulers. Colonial rulers project the inversion of their self-perception onto others -- colonial rulers see themselves as orderly and productive and the ruled as chaotic, criminal, and lazy -- which justifies colonial rule and displacement.

Let’s look more closely at the narrative about Pruitt-Igoe and the reality. First, in contrast to the conventional story mentioned above, Pruitt-Igoe public housing as it was designed or constructed did not win any awards.(1) Most references to professional architectural acclaim cite a 1951 article in Architectural Forum, a Time Inc. publication for the building industry.(2) The article is positive, but mostly about the cost savings and about the “refreshing” park land on the site. The article states that Pruitt-Igoe “might well set a new rescue pattern” for other cities filled with slums.(2) As Meehan (1979), Bristol (1991), and others have documented, the budget of the already cost-saving design was, in fact, cut dramatically, leaving the buildings without landscaping and the "refreshing" park land when opened in 1954.(7) Pruitt-Igoe was not award winning, but was understood, at least by the building industry, as low-cost housing.

Second, the St. Louis business community supported the building of Pruitt-Igoe as a strategy to encourage investment in declining St. Louis.(3) Public housing construction as a development strategy was also practiced in other cities, including on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. According to Chris Bacon (1985), large-scale manufacturing in St. Louis, especially Anheuser-Busch, had suffered losses in market share in the 1930s and 1940s and sought to expand production with the help of new transportation routes and other public infrastructure.(4) At this time, the building industries also suffered from the weakening economy. Not a single major office building had been built in St. Louis between 1930 and at least 1958.(4) Because St. Louis received federal funds from the 1949 Housing Act, public housing construction was the only major building activity in St. Louis.(5) The city government supported expansion of industrial production through urban renewal, destroying slums and displacing people away from sites for new freeways, new production, and new middle-class housing. The Pruitt-Igoe’s site was “the cheapest such parcel in St. Louis,” but it “will probably have grown to be the best.”(2) On this inexpensive land, the Pruitt-Igoe buildings doubled the density in the area, thus concentrating low-income residents and making available the land of former slums for expansion of industrial production and new infrastructure development. Thus, the city government and business leaders understood Pruitt-Igoe as an investment that would raise land and property values in St. Louis.

According to this view, public and private housing should be built together. The 1951 article discussed above had a second section, giving equal importance to a privately funded urban renewal project of middle-class housing to be built beside Pruitt-Igoe. The architectural sketches in the article show modernist slab buildings much taller than those planned for Pruitt-Igoe similarly surrounded by park land. In response to demand for such units, these apartments would primarily be efficiencies. The same architectural firm designed both the public and private housing. According to a journalist quoted in the article, the major businessmen investing in this privately funded project “had the kind of arithmetic which could appeal to the big companies who have big investments in the downtown.” (2) The article and the major business leaders supported both this private housing and public housing together as a way to save the downtown of St. Louis.(2)

Third, government officials and business leaders chose a modernist architectural style for Pruitt-Igoe that conveyed progress and thus would lure investors to the city. Today, from the colonial perspective, low-income residents are seen as somehow unable to live in high-rise apartment buildings, while the wealthy are somehow able to live in these buildings:

Concentrated wealth in modernist buildings today. City Center DC, Wikimedia Commons.
At the same time, as Bacon (1985) has argued, public housing had to function as a stigma. According to sociologist Erving Goffman (1963), stigma is "an attribute that is deeply discrediting" with two major consequences: status loss and social rejection.(6) To create a stigma that would encourage residents to leave public housing as quickly as possible and enter the private housing market, the St. Louis Public Housing Authority could not provide at Pruitt-Igoe the amenities of middle-class housing. Furthermore, many middle-class, white St. Louis residents did not support providing even the most basic amenities to low-income African Americans. As a result of this and the drastic cost cutting, the buildings were already falling apart already when opened in 1954.(7) From his extensive archival research, Meehan (1979) found an extraordinary number of problems, including “The quality of the hardware was so poor that doorknobs and locks were broken on initial use, often before actual occupancy began. Windowpanes were blown from inadequate frames by wind pressure. In the kitchens, cabinets were made of the thinnest plywood possible…”(7) The consequences of extensive cost-savings were deadly. Within the year that the first resident moved in, two girls fell from the buildings, one from the seventh floor and one from the ninth.(8) The budget cuts created the stigma demanded by the private housing industry and supported by middle-class white citizens in St. Louis.

With little knowledge of the actual history of Pruitt-Igoe, people can rely on the colonial perspective, which offers them a range of actors to blame for the "failure" of Pruitt-Igoe: modernist architecture, urban planners, the low-income residents, African Americans, the St. Louis city government, public housing, the welfare state, and so on. The colonial perspective also offers a perverse solution: the destruction of public housing and the displacement of its residents. Today, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project is completely gone, replaced by a forest that has grown in its place:
Forest at the former Pruitt-Igoe Site, July 2013 (Image by author).

(1) According to the AIA, “Pruitt-Igoe is often cited as an AIA-award recipient, but the project never won any architectural awards.” Sara Fernández Cendón, 2012. "Pruitt-Igoe 40 Years Later." AIArchitect 19. The architectural firm had won an Outstanding Design Award from the AIA for a different project (Cervantes 1974: 45). A. J. Cervantes. 1974. Mr. Mayor. Los Angeles: Nash Publishing.

(2) "Slum Surgery in St. Louis," 1951. Architectural Forum: The Magazine of Building 94(4): 129-136.

(3) The article in Architectural Forum identified the investors in the private housing as "conservative business leaders" ("Slum Surgery" 1951: 135).

(4) Chris Bacon, 1985. "Pruitt Igoe Revisited." Department of Town and Regional Planning, Faculty of Architectural Studies, The University of Sheffield. 

(5) The building industries supported public housing across the country for similar reasons (Vale and Freemark 2012: 385). L. J. Vale and Y. Freemark, 2012. "From Public Housing to Public-Private Housing." Journal of the American Planning Association 78(4): 379-402.

(6) Erving Goffman. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

(7) K. G. Bristol, 1991. "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth." Journal of Architectural Education 44(3): 163-171; E. J. Meehan, 1979. The Quality of Federal Policymaking: Programmed Failure in Public Housing. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

(8) 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. 231.