Watching “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” in a packed theater this afternoon was much more than a movie-going experience: It was a history lesson, a fact-finding mission, a therapy session and a séance, all rolled-up into an 83-minute documentary and a 45-minute discussion with the producers.
The documentary, written by Chad Friedrichs and produced in St. Louis, chronicles the rise and literal fall of America’s poster-child for failed public-housing projects—the North-St. Louis. Pruitt-Igoe development, whose life span was from 1952 to 1975. The money shot seen ‘round the world is the dramatic implosion of the dilapidated 11-story buildings that, at their peak, housed 11,000 people.
But that iconic image is far from the whole story. And that’s what “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” is about. Unfortunately, what many people see in the implosion film and still photos is a public-housing project gone terribly wrong—and, as a result, a reason to mistrust government and to justify their disdain for “welfare” programs and poor people.
What the film shows us is something very different. Using fascinating archival photos, news footage and home movies from the Pruitt-Igoe years—along with emotional interviews with people who lived there—the filmmakers give us a look at Pruitt-Igoe that has been hidden, forgotten or deliberately ignored for many years. And they explore the socio-economic trends and policy decisions that essentially doomed Pruitt-Igoe from the start.
Probably most surprising—for someone like me, who didn’t live there—was the nostalgia expressed by several on-screen interviewees. One wistfully remembers her first Christmas in Pruitt-Igoe, when everyone decorated their new apartments with holiday lights, and the pristine plazas between the buildings glistened with snow. There are other fond reminiscences, too, like the memory of moving from a North-St. Louis shack into a “Poor People’s Penthouse,” where your mother can, for the first time, have her own bed and a room with a door. And the spontaneous parties and sense of community and belonging created among families with few other local connections.
But this is far from a sugar-coated documentary. Well-known St. Louis journalist Sylvester Brown gives a candid account of his childhood in Pruitt-Igoe, where to survive, he learned to fight and to assume an air of toughness. Others remind us of the punitive, “no-man-in-the-house” policy of the time, under which husbands and fathers were barred from the homes of families receiving public assistance. They explain that, in exchange for receiving welfare checks, their families had to submit to the social engineering of and judgmental attitudes of bureaucrats, who would not allow them to have televisions or telephones—or even to paint their apartments any color other than white. One interviewee shares the pain he clearly still feels over the shooting death of his eight-year-old brother, just outside the door to their Pruitt-Igoe building.
We also see excerpts from 1960s and 1970s news reports about Pruitt-Igoe, which focused on the physical deterioration of the buildings and the crime inside and around them. The impression that has lingered, both in St. Louis and nationwide, is that somehow, it was the poverty and lack of education of the residents that ruined the great social experiment that was Pruitt-Igoe.
The documentary works hard to debunk that stereotype. In interviews with several social historians, we’re reminded of the larger context that shaped the story arc of Pruitt-Igoe: The Federal Housing Act of 1949, which created incentives for large-scale public-housing developments, while also encouraging urban flight and systemic removal of African-Americans from certain neighborhoods; the conflict between economic gain for developers and trade unions versus the social ideal of helping impoverished people; the ultimately disastrous decision to provide federal funds to build the development, but to rely on residents’ rent for maintenance; and, of course, institutionalized racism.
It’s a complicated story that has, unfortunately, been reduced to that single, iconic image for most of America, and, as producer Brian Woodman said during a question-and-answer session following the screening, “It’s an amazing story that no one knows about…We need to reopen the dialogue.”
And they did. The Q and A session with the film’s producers and two of the former residents of Pruitt-Igoe featured in the documentary was a story unto itself. In an audience of about 400 people at this showing [the last of only three in St. Louis, so far], between 35 and 50 were former Pruitt-Igoe residents. [They were asked to stand during the Q and A session.] One after another, they thanked the writers and producers for telling the Pruitt-Igoe story. They talked about the lives they led there—not lives of crime, but lives of going to school, working, adhering to family imposed curfews, and striving to do better for themselves and their families.
“We’re people. We had real families. We served on school boards and community councils,” said one former resident, who like others, proudly stated her address in the Pruitt-Igoe complex. “People on the outside looking in see a whole different picture.”
“Good things did come out of Pruitt-Igoe,” said another, noting that former residents regularly hold Pruitt-Igoe reunions. “Just because we came from the slums doesn’t mean that we don’t have a heart or want something better. I cherish Pruitt-Igoe as a part of my life.”
These statements added an emotional coda to the screening of this remarkable documentary. They remind us of the many ghosts of Pruitt-Igoe, the residual anger that is the legacy of segregation and punitive policies imposed on people in need, and the pride that seems to survive despite all of it.
“The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” deserves to be seen much more widely. As I learned from the spontaneous, post-screening testimony of residents who lived in and survived Pruitt-Igoe, at the very least, it’s an affirmation and vindication of their lives. But on a larger scale, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” is a cautionary tale for the 21st Century, when the myth of grand economic solutions for cities persists [and seems continually to fail], and when the war on poor people rages on.
Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of progressive values as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.