Film Review: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

Deeply impressive and disturbing exposé of what went terribly wrong with one hopeful post-War American housing experience.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth starts with footage of the explosive destruction of the titular housing project, designed by Minoru Yamasaki (who also did the very differently demolished World Trade Center), the first such in St. Louis. The reasons for this mass architectural detonation provide the basis for a compelling documentary, directed and co-written by Chad Freidrichs.

Opened in 1954, the project presented what seemed a beneficent antidote to the shoddy housing provided for lower-income African-Americans. Interviews with reminiscing original inhabitants have them calling it wonderful, a “poor man’s paradise.” But by the 1960s, the local housing authority, supposedly cash-strapped, cut back on maintenance, and things swiftly deteriorated into a miasma of open garbage, severe leaks, lack of heating, and other woes. This led to a 1969 rent strike, the first in the history of public housing, but which changed nothing. What once had been a safe environment for kids to play in devolved, as the amount of crime and violence which arose had certain inhabitants even ashamed to claim they came from Pruitt-Igoe.

Freidrich has done deeply impressive work to explore this still-nagging problem, using interviews and archival reconstructions. What emerges as a major factor here are the urban policies, which emphasized an environment of segregation that encouraged whites to flee the city, with the declining population (some 60% in St. Louis alone) contributing to revenue loss and widespread poverty. Archival footage reveals racist hatred being spewed by St. Louis natives wanting to live in exclusively white neighborhoods. The deeper psychological effects of the hell which Pruitt-Igoe became remain vivid with its residents, particularly one man who recalls seeing his brother killed in a hallway, with his mother desperately attempting to save his fast-ebbing life.

For all the horror they experienced, however, some former inhabitants still look wistfully at the overgrown, vacant lot where the project once stood, and their happy memories—of Christmas and communal dancing to Martha and the Vandellas on the radio—stand as a bittersweet testament to yet another destroyed American dream.