Promise lost in the dustheap
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Mar. 9, 2012
Preconceived notions are like bedbugs; after finding a home, they tend to spread until eradication feels hopeless. Documentarian Chad Freidrichs looks at one such presumption in "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth."
The film examines what happened between the incarnation of the St. Louis housing project and the memorable footage of its final implosion, including how it became riddled with crime and why it was deemed an unequivocal failure.
The Pruitt-Igoe housing project was built in the 1950s as a brick-and-mortar incarnation of high hopes to liberate St. Louis residents from the slums. While it's true the plan culminated with 57 acres of scattered rubble after just two decades, what happened in those intervening years deserves careful study. Using archival footage and interviews with former residents, Freidrichs adds human dimension and historical context to what is often viewed in simple terms as a misguided blip.
Early in the documentary, a cheery ad from the 1950s touts the positive aspects of public housing: These are bright new buildings, a man's voice relays, where children can play safely on wide lawns. A gut reaction to the clip might be incredulity. Knowing what we now know about the violence and mismanagement that ensued, the pristine portrayal might be laughable if it weren't so tragic.
But interviews uncover surprisingly warm memories as onetime inhabitants recount moving from shanties into units that smelled of fresh paint. One woman from a family of 12 recalls sharing a three-bedroom home where her mother slept on a cot in the kitchen before moving into the low-income apartment building. There, "everybody had a bed," she marveled.
Freidrichs explores various causes for the project's ultimate downfall. The massive endeavor was ill-timed, coinciding with urban flight that sent the white population to newly constructed suburbs, shrinking the city's tax base. Public funds for upkeep of the partially occupied 33-building behemoth were scarce. The apartments fell into disrepair, and the guilt was shared by the city - burst pipes, no heat - and the inhabitants, who became embittered and intentionally broke windows and light bulbs.
The complex also created a kind of hyper-segregation that bred xenophobia, which the film shows in wrenching terms through mid-century interviews in which white suburbanites discuss not wanting "trash people" moving to their new enclaves. Meanwhile, Pruitt-Igoe residents weren't doing themselves any favors by throwing bottles and other debris at police officers and firefighters who came to the housing complex. Eventually officers stopped showing up.
The excessive amount of explicative voice-over sometimes recalls a movie tailor-made for a classroom, and studious viewers may feel the urge to take notes. Yet for all the numbers and complicated history, this is ultimately an emotional story. Nearly 40 years after the city felled the buildings, the wounds are still fresh for former residents who break down on camera both recalling the good times and recounting the trauma of living in constant fear.
"The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" unfolds like a Greek tragedy. Hindsight affords a dramatic irony so that viewers know how this story ends, and it's not well. But tragedies are still worth watching for the intricacies of the story, not to mention the case study of cause and effect. After all, there's more to any story than its beginning and end.
Contains discussion of violence and murder.