The Myth of Pruitt Igoe
At the suggestion of a friend I finally watched the documentary The Myth of Pruitt Igoe. The whole subject is too vast for this one post, but the presentation was excellent. The experience was rather emotional, particularly seeing the testimony of former residents such as Ruby Russell who worked with me at HUD.
The presentation was pretty fair, doing a good job of avoiding simplistic answers. The basic premise is that things such as racism, project design, slum clearance, welfare rules, and so on. Where I believe the presentation was inaccurate was in attributing the problems at Pruitt Igoe to the population loss in St. Louis. While the city suffered population loss, the demand for public housing remained as high as ever with huge waiting lists.
Aside from the flaw of concentrating too many people in high rise buildings, the beginnings of the welfare state played a role. Previously, public housing did not even allow people on welfare to reside in their units. At the time of the development of Pruitt-Igoe, this rule changed and they pretty much let anyone in the project who was poor, regardless of background. The federal government at that time did not provide housing authorities with operating subsidies so all expenses needed to be covered by rent. Maintenance backlogs developed, repairs were not made, and the better tenants moved out.
During my housing career I had the privilege of being a friend and colleague of Tom Costello who was the Executive Director of the St. Louis Housing Authority at the time of the demolition. He has said the authority could simply not keep up with maintenance backlogs. He said George Romney, the Secretary of HUD at the time suggested total demolition. I have also known at former police officer at Pruitt Igoe. He said he would have 65 major cases to investigate every day when he came in.
The story of Pruitt Igoe is a tragedy and symbolized both the end of public housing and modernist architecture. I worked a year at the St. Louis Housing Authority in the late nineties. We received calls every week from people curious about Pruitt-Igoe all over the world. Architects would come on field trips to visit the site as if it was a religious shrine. Everyone needs to view this documentary. Written by Paul Dribin