Tackling The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
Editor’s note: Our faithful readers will note we recently featured a short post with a trailer and some information about a new documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which deals with an infamous public housing complex in St. Louis, built in the 1950s and torn down in 1972.
The film’s director, Chad Freidrichs, recently spoke with Rust Wire about this myth and the film it inspired.
And St. Louis residents: the movie will be shown April 9 at the Missouri History Museum. -KG
RW: “When you say, ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,’ what is the myth you are referring to?”
CF: “Let me start at the beginning here. One of the things we’re addressing with the film is the way that I approached the film from the very beginning, which was from an architectural point of view. That’s how many people discover Pruitt-Igoe. Most people are likely to hear Pruitt-Igoe in the same sentence as ‘the failure of modernist architecture.’ When we are discussing the Pruit-Igoe Myth, what we’re referring to is the idea –number one- that the architecture was to blame for what happened at Pruitt-Igoe, or that –there’s several here- or that the federal government was to blame, because this was a federal project, therefor Pruitt-Igoe declined so precipitously, or that it’s the residents. You often hear this in conversation, that the residents simply tore up something that was gifted to them back in the 50s, and 20 years later, because the resident population, because they were poor, because they were rural, or whatever, they didn’t know how to maintain this building. So that’s really kind of the myth that we’re addressing here. Now, this is based on an article by Katharine Bristol called, ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.’ This is really the foundational text when I was researching the subject, this particular article is something that I really admired, just the context that she put it in as well as critiquing the architectural argument….Her basic point was that Pruitt-Igoe is often thought of as having won an award. You’ll always see ‘award-winning Pruitt-Igoe’ and she pointed out rightly that Pruitt-Igoe never won an award, it was actually Cochran Gardens, Pruitt-Igoe’s cousin in St. Louis that won (architect Minoru) Yamasaki the award. She uses this as an endpoint to analyze why it was that that myth has persisted….She senses this historical irony in it, the idea that these buildings were meant to solve social problems, and they ultimately ended up making it worse, there is a saliency in her opinion to that historical irony…We are combating that simplified notion that architecture or the fact that something is a federal program can create those conditions.”
RW: “What inspired you to make the movie? This article or was there something else? Were you familiar with this complex from growing up around St. Louis?”
CF: “Actually, ironically, having grown up on the outskirts of St. Louis, I had never heard of Pruitt-Igoe, it was from a different generation. It is still discussed in the city, but I don’t think it is discussed amongst people who are younger. And so I came at it from an architectural standpoint. We had just bought a house- an old, 1950’s ranch and we were fixing it up 1950s style and I was really getting into mid-century design. I was listening to an audio lecture on architecture and the history of the city, and the professor was talking about this massive project, Pruitt-Igoe, that was supposed to alleviate social problems and alleviate slum conditions in the inner city in the post-war years, and I just thought it was absolutely fascinating.Especially put in the context of its supposed failures. That was a really interesting idea- that architecture could make people’s lives better or worse, depending on how it was built. The built environment, kind of controls behavior in that sense. And so that’s what really got me into it. And for the first several months of the project, I approached it from that angle.”
RW: “When people see this movie, what do you want them to take away? What should they remember after they watch it?”
CF: “It’s a big, complex movie, and it’s done so by design….If there was one lesson I would want people to take away, it is that the history of the American city is a big, complex thing. And when you are talking about a project like Pruitt-Igoe, you have to put it in that broad context. You can’t just analyze social phenomena like Pruitt-Igoe in a vacuum. One thing that I always like to point out to people, is that if you were to go across the street from Pruitt-Igoe in like 1960 or 1970, to go across Jefferson Avenue, you would have seen extraordinarily similar conditions, not in terms of the built environment, but in terms of the vandalism, in terms of the maintenance issues, in some cases the crime was even higher across the street, and all these things that were tacked on to Pruitt-Igoe as rallying points against it were very much part of the surrounding neighborhood. And the tendency is to want to take Pruitt-Igoe out of that environment, and to just analyze it as this thing that is separate from the city. But the same kind of issues that were prevalent in Pruitt-Igoe, some of these negatives, were certainly part of all American cities, all around the country. To take Pruitt-Igoe out of that context, I think is a mistake, an oversimplification.”
RW: “I don’t want to give anything away from the film, but can you tell us what is on that site where that complex used to stand? What’s there now? ”
CF: “If you were to drive down Jefferson Avenue right now…you would have this kind of urban, textured landscape, then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you would just see like probably, four or five blocks of just trees…. Just, 30, 40-year old trees, like a park. And that’s the bulk of the Pruitt-Igoe site today, just an overgrown, vacant, lot. Full of trash. But almost like a little nature reserve, with areas of high terrain and low terrain where the buildings used to be where there were piles of rock. Now those have been grown over. There is a natural contour to the land now. It’s a pretty interesting site. There are YouTube videos on the site where people have toured around. And on the southwest side, they have built an elementary school.”
RW: “Why hasn’t it been redeveloped?”
CF: “That’s a really good question… All around the Pruitt-Igoe site, there has been pretty extensive development over the last 20 years. It is been pretty built up. There aren’t too many vacant lots there, whereas in the day of Pruitt-Igoe, it was kind of a gap-toothed landscape. But there has been a fair amount of development around the project. One argument as to why there hasn’t been any development on the site it itself, I’ve heard – although I’ve also seen it disconfirmed- the idea that the foundations would be too expensive to excavate. To be honest with you, I’m not really sure. It’s a big chunk of land and it probably has to be purchased in one piece. There have been discussions of building a golf course on it, a fishing lake, turning it into a light industrial area over the years, but none of those have ever come to fruition. There are new plans circulating all the time. There is a massive plan going around right now for redevelopment of the entire North Side of St. Louis and Pruitt Igoe is playing a large role in that and we’ll see what happens.”
RW: “Do you have plans to show this movie in other cities?”
CF: “Absolutely. A lot depends on the film festivals…We’re also going to contact universities around the country for educational distribution…There are so many cities across America that went through something like this. People, when they heard about this, they think it is a story about St. Louis. And it is, it definitely is…St. Louis though, was kind of ahead of the curve in the post-war decline that affected many cities severely a little bit later than St. Louis. So, really our story is about the changes that took place in most American cities in the post-war years, and so I think people around the country will be able to see a lot of their own city in St. Louis’ story.”