The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

Roman Mars:
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.]

[They can live.]

Roman Mars:
This is Chad Freidrichs.

Chad Freidrichs:
So Pruitt-Igoe was a housing project that existed on the north side of St. Louis.

Roman Mars:
Freidrichs is the director and producer of the documentary “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.”

Chad Freidrichs:
It was thirty-three 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.]

Chad Freidrichs:
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.]

Chad Freidrichs:
And so Pruitt-Igoe was supposed to be everything different.

[Now they would have more magnificent views than the richest people in St. Louis.]

Chad Freidrichs:
It was high-rise, whereas 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 landowners. It was an opportunity to present poor residents with light and air. That was the really the driving factor behind Pruitt-Igoe’s design.

Roman Mars:
Tall, modern buildings would give access to fresh breezes and sunlight. The sensible remedy to unhealthy conditions in the inner- slums.

Chad Freidrichs:
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.]

[What happened?]
[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.]

Roman Mars:
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.]

Roman Mars:
Maintenance 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 tenants than any other entity. The vandalism that existed in Pruitt-Igoe came from that environment. Things allowed to just deteriorate. People not really caring.]

Roman Mars:
It’s easy to look at Pruitt-Igoe and think that almost every decision that was made was a bad one. The vandalism led the housing authority to install a bunch of unbreakable designs in the towers.

[Instead of trying to enhance their existence, we’ll just make things so they can’t be destroyed. Everything had to be protected. Light fixtures, no light exposed. There were shields around them with mesh metal, protecting the bulb.]

Chad Freidrichs:
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.

Roman Mars:
The only human reaction to being presented with an unbreakable object is to try and break it.

[You know, the fact that it was indestructible 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, and lights were out.]

Roman Mars:
Two decades after opening Pruitt-Igoe, the government gave up.

[Because they are so desperate, they are willing to try desperate things.]

Roman Mars:
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.]

Chad Freidrichs:
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.

Roman Mars:
Which leads to this question. How well known would Pruitt-Igoe be if you didn’t have that implosion image?

Chad Freidrichs:
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.

Roman Mars:
That image was so powerful, so full of emotion, that it could easily be used to support any previously-held beliefs or prejudices about federal housing or modernist architecture. Or even the poor themselves.

Chad Freidrichs:
And so people will use it constantly as such. That’s what people think when thinking 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.

Roman Mars:
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.

Chad Freidrichs:
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.

Roman Mars:
What St. Louis went through was a completely unpredicted population decline.

Chad Freidrichs:
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

Roman Mars:
What happened was the exact opposite.

Chad Freidrichs:
The bottom dropped out of the city’s population as the population started to move to suburban areas, out of the city.

Roman Mars:
And this process was aided by the exact same 1949 Federal Housing Act that offered federally underwritten loans to buy houses in suburbia.

Chad Freidrichs:
You really started to see populations dip.

Roman Mars:
Pruitt-Igoe was undercut by the very law that created it.

Chad Freidrichs:
To the point where, by 1980, St. Louis had half the population that it did in 1950.

Roman Mars:
And that trend continues to this day.

Chad Freidrichs:
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.

Roman Mars:
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.

Chad Freidrichs:
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.

Roman Mars:
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.

Chad Freidrichs:
The money for operating and maintaining the buildings was to come from the incomes of the rents from the tenants.

Roman Mars:
Things began to break. Conditions deteriorated. More people left. Less rent could be collected. Everything just got worse and worse.

Chad Freidrichs:
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.

Roman Mars:
And conveniently, that’s the scenario that happened across the street.

Chad Freidrichs:
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 vandalism that existed in Pruitt-Igoe, and oftentimes you’d actually see higher crime rates in the 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.

Roman Mars:
The focus on Pruitt-Igoe is understandable when you see an 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.

Chad Freidrichs:
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 a high rise, it had almost everything to do with the decline of the city in which it resided.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced by me, Roman Mars with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW 91.7, local public radio in San Francisco, the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. 99% Invisible is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, making public radio more public. Find out more at prx.org.

The 99% Invisible intern, his name is Sam Greenspan. To find out more about this show, see some pictures of Pruitt-Igoe and watch the trailer of the Pruit-Igoe myth, go to our website. It’s 99percentinvisible.org.

  1. beetle

    What’s the song near during the beginning of the episode? Piano in it. Kind of sound like the piano in nina simone’s sinnerman.

  2. LinLorienelen

    I just listened to this episode today and spent the entire episode waiting for the Philip Glass song to play. Come on guys! A custom song!

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