Friday, March 16, 2012

"The Pruitt-Igoe Myth": documents a notorious public housing failure in St. Louis

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History” tells the story of one of the most notorious public assistance failures in American history, the rise and fall of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis.  The film is directed by Chad Freidrich, is produced by Unicorn Stencil,  and is released to theaters by First Run Features. I saw it Thursday afternoon at the West End Cinema in Washington DC.

The project comprised 33 11-story buildings north of downtown St. Louis, completed in 1954.  At first, low income people (mostly African Americans who had moved up from the south and lived in slums) enjoyed the views and took some pride, decorating the place for the first Christmas. 

But public policies were set in such a way that the projects could not be maintained. The federal government had supplied funds to build the project but not to maintain it. Residents couldn’t afford enough rent to maintain the buildings. Furthermore, in some ways the buildings were inadequate.  Elevators stopped only at every three floors and people had to intermingle a lot (which had been thought to be good).  Residents at first were not allowed to have televisions or even phone.  “They wanted to rule us with their stipulations because we took their money”, one past resident said.

Conservatives  (and especially libertarians) will point out that this story illustrates the idea that “government doesn’t work”.  Instead, people should be empowered to help themselves.  We know the arguments.  Marriage is to be encouraged.  Not just Santorum, but libertarian writer Charles Murray would tell this story well.

Public policy failed in other ways, as society remained segregated, and the while middle class moved to suburbs.  St. Louis was not allowed to annex land, which worked to its serious disadvantage. The film demonstrates how American ideas of middle class life varied from reality with clips from the situation comedy "My Little Margie" which I remember well. 

The film ends with video of the implosions of the buildings in 1972.

My most recent visit to St. Louis occurred in 2000.  I remember passing through on a family trip in 1961 right after graduating from high school.  I have relatives in the suburbs (Clayton) on the father's side of the family. 

Here is the official site

Wikipedia attribution link for overhead picture of development in 1950s (USG survey).

Today's short film is Barack Obama's "The Road We've Traveled", reviewed on my Issues blog (17 min).

On the International Issues blog there is also "George Clooney Witnesses War Crimes in Sudan's Nuba Mountains" (4 min). 

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