In 1972, the implosion of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing project was televised for a national audience. As far as demolitions go, it was pretty standard. In director Chad Freidrichs’ The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, he explores the emotional resonance that lies behind the destruction, explaining why so many took perverse pleasure in witnessing the buildings’ demise.
Gathering the testimony of former residents, urban studies, scholars and archival footage, Freidrichs doesn’t dispute the myriad problems that led to Pruitt-Igoe’s undoing but provides a more nuanced understanding of what its failure came to represent: government programs don’t work. The film describes the confluence of factors that doomed these federally funded high-rises, a facet of the post-war plan meant to stimulate the economy of downtown business by ridding cities of their aging slums. With the help of a few key pieces of local and federal legislation—-including the American Housing Act of 1949, which heavily contributed to white flight to the suburbs—-Pruitt-Igoe was propped up as a self-congratulatory symbol of progress but was quickly undone by adherence to rigid bureaucracy (no able-bodied men were allowed to live in the building) and budgetary neglect.
As the middle-class left St. Louis en masse, the degradation of Pruitt-Igoe came to reinforce the worst fears of desegregation and welfare. Without enough resources, the buildings fell into disrepair; old television clips illustrate its gradual transformation from hopeful initiative to brick-and-mortar boogeyman. But that isn’t the whole story. Former residents fondly recall the “poor man’s penthouse” that once embodied their dreams of upward mobility. These first-hand accounts save The Pruitt-Igoe Myth from the film’s occasionally didactic, hyper-localized tone, stripping away the symbolism to reveal the affection, disappointment and anger of the people who lived through an infamous failed social experiment. For some, the destruction proved a point; for the people of St. Louis, it remains a blemished piece of history from which many have yet to recover.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is now playing at The West End Cinema, 2301 M Street NW. $9-11. (202) 419-3456.