Charting the history of the 33-block development in downtown St Louis, the film’s director Chad Friedrichs teases out the experiences of four Pruitt-Igoe tenants. Tentatively, the stories are woven into a historical and sociological framework. The often harrowing, sometimes humorous, anecdotes are interjected with excerpts from latter-day newsreels and a frank analysis by urban historians Robert Fishman and Joseph Heathcott of the urban migration pattern in American cities in the Fifties and Sixties. Hoping to offer an alternative perspective on the doomed estate, the film’s agenda actually creates a new vantage point from which the viewer can take or leave the stereotype.
The Housing Act, job creation and a more cynical approach to controlling the already racially segregated urbanities paved the way for Pruitt-Igoe and other high-rise housing projects around the country. Slum clearance following the Housing Act was marketed to potential investors in downtown St Louis as a means to rebuild the city and accommodate the predicted growth in population. But analysts misread the market and, while city centres were gentrified to fulfil the demand (the process became known as Negroid clearance) the white middle classes began moving out to settle in cheaper plots of land outside the city limits in the first wave of American suburbs.
The polarised movements reversed previous models of city expansion and St Louis’ position on the Mississippi river meant that smaller towns began to promote themselves as business opportunities for the new white suburban neighbourhoods. Without work and locally generated commerce, the black estates began to resemble the slums they were outwardly intended to abolish.
Perhaps most interesting, though, is the part that modernist architecture, in the form of public housing, played in shaping communities. Former residents remember the sense of family that the ‘streets in the sky’ afforded, the ownership they felt when each family member had a bed, and windows let in light and vistas to every room. The film also presents the sociological impact on the architecture itself: one former resident recalls her mother painting a wall black and handing the children chalk to do their homework because paper was too expensive.
Alongside its educational value, the film tears into the heart of current issues of public housing: considered design, sufficient funding and appropriate resources. While we are quick to bemoan the failings of post-war public housing, it is to the detriment of learning from the past. Rather than discuss architecture as a machine for living in, as Le Corbusier posited, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth places architecture as a cog in a much larger mechanism.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, UK release date: Spring 2012, http://www.pruitt-igoe.com/