Dismantling the Myths of Pruitt-Igoe

A new documentary aims to challenge the existing narrative surrounding the birth, life, and death of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing development.

Dante A. Ciampaglia writes about, perhaps, the country's most infamous public housing project, located in St. Louis, whose demolition in 1972 is memorialized as the death of Corbusian modernism, and is the subject of a new documentary by director Chad Freidrichs.

In challenging the accepted history of the project, Ciampaglia writes that director Freidrichs, "..makes a compelling case. Drawing heavily on archival footage, raw data, and historical reanalysis, the film reorients Pruitt-Igoe as the victim of institutional racism and post-war population changes in industrial cities, among other issues far more complex than poor people not appreciating nice things."

While successful as an effort in "cultural preservation," Ciampaglia questions whether the film does enough to change the narrative concerning Pruitt-Igoe's place in the history of urban design.

Full Story: Imploding the Pruitt-Igoe Myth



Housing Projects and Displaced Residents

"As projects like Pruitt-Igoe—including Chicago’s recently demolished Cabrini-Green—are torn down and developers lust over the land under the rubble, the lives of displaced residents are ignored and forgotten."

The reviewer seems to have forgotten that these modernist housing projects themselves were built by demolishing whole neighborhoods and displacing their residents.

The difference is that Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini Green were dysfunctional neighborhoods. The neighborhoods that were torn down to build housing projects were functioning neighborhoods with many businesses and civic associations as well as housing and with lower crime rates than the projects that replaced them.

Here is a quotation from my book, Unplanning:

Consider the fate of East Harlem in New York, which was a stable Italian and Puerto Rican neighborhood with hundreds of voluntary organizations and thousands of small businesses, many of them run by the second or third generation of owners. In 1937, a city-sponsored study found that the neighborhood was likely to become New York’s center of Italian culture. But in 1942, the banks redlined the neighborhood; they even closed all the bank branches in this neighborhood of 100,000 people, so merchants had to go to other neighborhoods to deposit their receipts. Some parts of the neighborhood held out despite the redlining, but during the 1950s the redevelopers decided to clear its slums by building the huge Wagner Houses housing project, completed in 1958, which has 2,154 apartments in 22 buildings located between First and Second Avenues and 120th to 124th Streets. In order to clear the land for this project, the planners destroyed buildings containing over 1,300 businesses and over 500 non-commercial storefront organizations. More than four-fifths of the proprietors of these businesses were ruined financially, because redevelopment did not compensate business owners for the value of their businesses as going concerns, though they did compensate property owners for the value of property they took. When they drove people out of their homes and businesses, the Housing Authority’s own managers said they were amazed to see how many of them had improved their properties substantially. But the neighborhood could not survive the massive destruction of its businesses and civic associations by this project, and it became one of New York’s worst slums.

Charles Siegel

Now is the time to create a '00 social safety net

I hope that films like "The Myth of Pruitt-Igoe" serve to deepen the understanding and re-ignite an interest in the importance of the housing-social safety net. We need to learn from the past to understand what the institutional forces and bad will were that turned a civic impulse into an expression of racism. Government supported housing can work if it is done correctly, with a commitment for the long haul, respect and involvement of residents. Here is a link to the piece about a project that was low-rise, had its difficulties, but that the residents fought to save, "The Dignity of Resistance." http://places.designobserver.com/media/pdf/The_Dignity_of_399.pdf

It is a fight worth fighting, and there couldn't be a better time to join the lobby for low income to workforce housing. Without such programs, we will continue to see more people living on the streets. And the best parts of our cities will be the enclaves of the 1%.

San Francisco

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