August 28, 2014

Department of Irony: Pruitt-Igoe Revisited

St. Louis will likely now be known for two great social failures in American urban history.  Ferguson, of course.  And nine miles to the southeast and a half-century ago, the Pruitt-Igoe housing project (map here).
As described in a CityLab article:

… a set of 33 massive 11-story apartment buildings set on 57 acres of open space, was a classic urban renewal solution: razing an old neighborhood and starting over.
Completed in 1956 and designed by Minoru Yamasaki, author of the World Trade Center in New York City, Pruitt-Igoe was a bad version of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse and his Unite d’Habitation apartment complex in Marseille. The superblock structures had no amenities and soon turned into warehouses of fear and crime and despair; the project was famously blown up in 1972, a symbol of bad planning.

Oh yes, famously blown-up, on live television, and ultimately set to the music of Philip Glass in Koyaanisqatsi (2:09-5:01):




The connection between Pruitt-Igoe and Ferguson?

The African-American families fleeing Pruitt-Igoe sought housing in St. Louis County to the north, in unincorporated towns like Spanish Lake—and Ferguson. Other predominantly white suburbs blocked the construction of multifamily housing. So the ring of suburbs outside the city of St. Louis all followed their own paths, making up the famously fragmented metropolitan region.

The city itself struggled with post-industrial decline and a population-loss spiral of well over a half-million people, and racial divisions were etched into the physical landscape.

In “A Failed Public-Housing Project Could Be a Key to St. Louis’ Future,” Anthony Flint describes the latest phase in Pruitt-Igoe’s troubled history:

The rubble-strewn forest is almost exactly at the center of 1,500 acres set for residential, commercial, and office space, plus a school and 50 acres of parks and trails. The lynchpin of it all would be to get the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency—the high-tech eyes and ears of the Defense Department—to relocate to where the towers of Pruitt-Igoe once stood.

Truly, you could not make this up.

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  1. I may have made this comment already in the past, but there are also other reasons why Pruitt-Igoe needs a re-evaluation. When Google first started posting aerial photos, I naturally started snooping out the globe. One of the places I went was the site of P-I:,-90.2080557,1612m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en
    A forest covers the northern part of the site, and a new school and some new social housing developments are on the rest. But what is notable is that the dense rowhouse neighbourhoods around P-I fared absolutely no better than P-I. They are just as grassy now. This is what they looked like when P-I was new:
    So in fact the whole neighbourhood declined together regardless of form. People just didn’t want to live here anymore or found it too difficult to do so.
    And finally, if P-I and the surrounding rowhouse neighbourhoods hadn’t been demolished before times changed again and people started moving back, I suspect that they would move back to P-I as well. I could very well see hipsters renovating units, combining them together, and filling them with mid-century modern furniture that they got on craigslist.

    1. There were so many reasons why Pruitt-Igoe declined — summarised by an article by Roger Montgomery after the demolition. As I recall, they included a racist management approach and racism in the hosuing market other, issues related to the housing market in the neighbourhood and the lack of maintenance of the buildings and the site. Another comparable building — tenant-managed — survived and did not need to be demolished. These are always very complex matters — we learn in hindsight. Wendy Sarkissian

    2. But the point is what happened to Pruitt-Igoe also happened all over the neighbourhood, and what explains the decline of P-T needs to explain this as well:,-90.2092067,3a,75y,15.55h,87.96t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s-1lakvh_WzPk6mt0hiMP3g!2e0?hl=en
      The obvious explanation is that people just didn’t want to live there anymore or found it too difficult to do so. The one US city that still has most of its 50’s and 60’s era public housing intact is New York City, the one large northeast city that had the mildest population declines through the 70’s and 80’s. In other words, people still wanted to live there and were able to do so.

  2. While I am not a historian but I understand that either Pruitt or Igoe was originally intended for black people and the other for whites, in this very racially divided Southern city. The whites didn’t move in so the entire project became an even larger one-race ghetto of poor people. I imagine the surrounding lower density areas also suffered through proximity to such a challenged and challenging “project.”
    Similar fates have befallen large public housing projects, even low rise ones, in other American cities.