Friday, September 30, 2011

MFF Film #17 - The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

USA, 2011
Director: Chad Freidrichs

"The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" is a term that is sometimes applied to explain the failure of public housing projects, and the public housing debate in general.  The origin of the term dates back to the early 1970's, when the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis was demolished after only 16 years of existence.  The housing was developed in the mid-1950's in response to the mass migration of southerners to St. Louis.  Slums were beginning to become a problem in the city's north side neighborhoods, so with federal money, the city planned a series of high-rise buildings designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki in a modern style and built over 57 acres.  In the beginning, the complex was idyllic, but lack of funding prevented the city from maintaining the properties, which created a slippery slope; when the buildings were not kept up, the residents began not to care and vandalism and violence became rampant.  Opinion of the authorities, especially the police obviously low, so they stopped coming when they were met with violence and danger, thinking, "We're going to have glass bottles thrown at us from 11 floors up.  Why bother?"  By then, it became a free-for-all and after people moved out due to safety concerns, drug dealers squatted in their empty apartments, putting the remaining residents at risk.  The buildings were finally demolished in 1972 after no other solution could be found.

I had never heard of this story, and it is absolutely fascinating.  Director Chad Freidrichs used a staggering amount of archival footage, which was available because this housing project was an international news story, partially because of the Civil Rights Movement.  unfortunately, any good that could have been passed on from that struggle never hit Pruitt-Igoe, where disenfranchisement was pervasive.  The welfare state did nothing but keep Pruitt-Igoe's residents from advancing economically, and really bred an isolationist atmosphere.  For years they didn't allow telephones or televisions in the apartments and as part of the condition for living there, families with husbands and fathers who were able-bodied or employed were not allowed to live with the family because that would exceed income qualifications.  Obviously, this created a culture of broken homes, where children didn't have a father and wives didn't have support.  From a psychological standpoint, it was only a matter of time before something would snap.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is filled with interviews with former residents of the housing project who all, to this day, still have mixed feelings about the time they spent there.  Though they were the ones telling stories of violence (one of the interviewees watched his brother get shot and killed there) and getting into urine-soaked elevators and seeing trash everywhere, there is still a nostalgia for Pruitt-Igoe.  Perhaps because it was a good idea in general, but once the city became involved it went off the rails.  They destroyed the slums in order to build Pruitt-Igoe and in record time, Pruitt-Igoe became worse than the slums it replaced, and that part of the city is just now starting to see a glimmer of revitalization.  Will history repeat itself yet again? 

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is an excellent documentary that does more than tell the history of a failed housing project; it explores the psychology behind why it failed and really gets some answers.  There isn't a lot left to interpretation here; what you see is what you get, and what we see is what is still going on to some degree in every major city in the United States, just not concentrated into 57 acres.

MFF Ballot Rating: 4 out of 5

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