Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
“These developments are run by the St. Louis Housing Authority. This is far cry from the crowded, collapsing tenements that many of these people have known. Here in bright new buildings with spacious grounds, they can live.”
“The Pruitt-Igoe myth begins here.”
RM: This is Chad Freidrichs.
Chad Freidrichs(CF): So Pruitt-Igoe was a housing project that existed on the north side of St. Louis.
RM: Freidrichs is the director and producer of the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.
CF: It was 33 eleven-story buildings and it was part of a larger urban renewal campaign that the city was undergoing in the 1940s and 50s.
“It was touted as a solution. A cure for the disease.”
CF: It was viewed kind of as a replacement for low-rise tenement housing.
“People who had been living where they literally never saw the sun.”
CF:And so Pruitt-Igoe was supposed to be everything different.
“Now they would have more magnificent views than the richest people in St. Louis.”
CF: It was high-rise, wheras the private market housing was low-rise. It was federal and therefore you wouldn’t have the creeping influence of slum lords coming in and basically being derelict land owners. It was an opportunity to present poor residents with light and air, that was the really the driving factor behind Pruitt-Igoe’s design.
RM: Tall, modern buildings would give access to fresh breezes and sunlight. The sensible remedy to unhealthy conditions in the inner slums.
CF: At least that was the thinking.
“Pruitt-Igoe would rise above the polluted slums.”
“It was a very beautiful place, like a big hotel resort, I’d say, with plenty of green grass, trees, shrubbery, and all the works.”
“Well, one day we woke up and it was all gone.”
“In the middle 50s, St. Louis thought it had solved its low-cost housing need. But instead, a monster was created.”
RM: In the film The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, it’s made very clear that the project wasn’t just a monster. In the beginning, especially, it represented hope to thousands of people who never thought they’d live in a clean new home. But things went downhill very fast.
“Twelve thousand people were originally jammed into these 33 buildings. Only 2,500 people still linger in the remaining shells.”
RM: Maintence dropped off. Elevators and trash incinerators broke and remained broken. Vandalism and crime rates rose
“One thing you always ask yourself is why. Why is it like this? Why do I live here? What did I do wrong? I think it created a mindset for the inhabitants that they weren’t cared about and I think that manifested itself in a way that caused more harm to the tennants than any other entity. The vandalism that existed in Pruitt-Igoe came from that environment. Things allowed to just deteriorate. People not really caring.”
RM: It’s easy to look at Pruitt-Igoe and think that almost every decision that was made was a bad one. The vandalism lead the housing authority to install a bunch of unbreakable designs in the towers.
“Instead of trying to enhance their existance, we’ll just make things so they can’t be destroyed. Everything had to be protected. Light fixtures, no light exposed. There were sheilds around them with mesh metal, protecting the bulb.”
CF: The city made a big deal about this. Their PR department actually came out and they had the installation of these new unbreakable lights that were going out. You know, they brought in all these people and the press.
RM: The only human reaction to being presented with an unbreakable object is to try and break it.
“You know, the fact that it was indestructable made you want to try to destroy things.”
“There was a screen around the lightbulbs that kept you from breaking them. But you know, kids will be kids. Find a way to break it. We just put water in it, throw it up, and the light would get hot and it would break when the lights were out.”
RM: Two decades after opening Pruitt-Igoe, the government gave up.
“Because they are so desperate, they are willing to try desperate things.”
RM: The Housing Authority blew it up. The press was invited. It started with three buildings in 1972. The rest followed. The image of the implosion, with the St. Louis Gateway Arch in the background became infamous.
“The Pruitt-Igoe myth begins here.”
CF: It was viewed as symbolic. It was kind of viewed as the end of an era. So then, several years later Charles Jencks writes his book on post-modern architecture and he opens his book with Pruitt-Igoe’s implosion as the death of modern architecture.
RM: Which leads to this question. How well known would Pruitt-Igoe be if you didn’t have that implosion image?
CF: You know, if it’s not blown up and you don’t have that image with the arch in the background and it’s so poignant, would we be discussing Pruitt-Igoe and I don’t think so. I mean, if something becomes an icon because it’s been visually recorded, there’s something about that building in freefall that acts as better evidence than anything else for failure.
RM: That image was so powerful, so full of emotion, that it could easily be used to support any previously-held beliefs or predujices about federal housing or modernist architecture. Or even the poor themselves.
CF: And so people will use it constantly as such. That’s what people think when think of public housing, when they think of large-scale federal program. It’s just an architectural failure and here’s a building that’s being imploded because it was bad architecture.
RM: Bad architecture is one of the major cited reasons for why Pruitt-Igoe failed. But that actually isn’t a factor that Chad Freidrichs puts a lot of stock in.
CF: Architecture was a marginal influence, if any, on Pruitt-Igoe’s demise. Perhaps this is an overreaction, but I tend to look as far away as I can from the design of the building, simply because I see so many other compelling factors in Pruitt-Igoe’s decline. I don’t like to try to take Pruitt-Igoe out of this city in which it resides. And I think many of the discussions that people have about Pruitt-Igoe tend to do that. They tend to look at Pruitt-Igoe as something that’s somehow divorced from the city of St. Louis and what it went through in those years.
RM: What St. Louis went through was a completely unpredicted population decline.
CF: You have to remember, Pruitt-Igoe comes out of the 1949 housing act, and in 1949, the population of most major cities in the urban core was rising. It was rising relatively rapidly, people coming into the cities for jobs from rural areas. And so St. Louis was undergoing the same process where they just had crowds and crowds of people coming into the city and so the idea was “well we need to find a place to put all these new people”- in a way that doesn’t lead to the kinds of slums that you had in earlier years, going all the way back to the 19th century factory city. The understanding among city planners and city officials was that the population would continue to rise to a population of about a million from 800,000, from 1950 to 1970. And so over the course of those 20 years there was an expectation that the city would rise maybe 20% in terms of its population
RM: What happened was the exact opposite.
CF: The bottom dropped out of the city’s population as the population started to move to suburban areas, out of the city.
RM: And this process was aided by the exact same 1949 Federal Housing Act that offered federally underwritten loans to buy houses in suburbia.
CF: You really started to see populations dip.
RM: Pruitt-Igoe was undercut by the very law that created it.
CF: To the point where, by 1980, St. Louis had half the population that it did in 1950.
RM: And that trend continues to this day.
CF: What happens is you build this massive project to house all these people who are coming into the city and when those people don’t come and the people you intended to be living there move out, all of a sudden you have a vacancy crisis and that’s really what gripped St. Louis during these years.
RM: So given that- the major architectural or design flaw that Chad attributes to the demise of Pruitt-Igoe was the sheer scale of the project.
CF: It was built so big and there just simply weren’t people to populate it by the 1970s. And so that’s the real tragedy of Pruitt-Igoe but it’s something that was very difficult to predict as well.
RM: The scale doomed Pruitt-Igoe from the start. The high vacancy rate meant that the Housing Authority couldn’t collect enough money to pay the maintenance bills.
CF: The money for operating and maintaining the buildings was to come from the incomes of the rents from the tenants.
RM: Things began to break . Conditions deteriorated. More people left. Less rent could be collected. Everything just got worse and worse.
CF: I mean I often like to say that Pruitt-Igoe is an easy scapegoat. It’s high-rise and that’s something in our mostly low-rise society that’s viewed negatively in some circles. It’s public housing, as opposed to private market housing, and its demographics are extraordinarily poor and almost 100% black. And so what I like to do when discussing Pruitt-Igoe is try to, like, think about a different scenario.
RM: And conveniently, that’s scenario happened across the street.
CF: If you were to enter Pruitt-Igoe in the late 1960s and you were to travel due west out of Pruitt-Igoe, and so what you would do is you would cross Jefferson Avenue. You’d cross the street into the low-rise private market housing that existed across the street. What you would see would be similar levels of poverty, you would see the same kinds of maintenance issues in those low-rise, private market buildings. You would see the same kinds of vanalism that existed in Pruitt-Igoe, and often times you’d actually see higher crime rates in teh surrounding neighborhoods than you would see in Pruitt Igoe. And no one really ever talks about those low-rise private market houses that existed around Pruitt-Igoe. It’s always Pruitt-Igoe. People focus on it.
RM: The focus on Pruitt-Igoe is understandable when you see and aerial photograph of St. Louis at the time. The impact of Pruitt-Igoe, those 33 buildings, the footprint that they make in the city, is just enormous.
CF: To me it had very little to do with the fact that Pruitt-Igoe was public housing, very little to do with the fact that it was high rise, it had almost everything to do with the decline of the city in which it resided.