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Completed in 1955 in St. Louis, Missouri, the massive Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex included thirty-three buildings of eleven stories each. Despite initial acclaim, the complex quickly devolved to the point that city officials chose to dynamite it from 1972 to 1976, deeming the complex uninhabitable. In addition to architectural style, primary causes of Pruitt-Igoe’s destruction were the ghetto unrest of the mid 1960s and the geographical, racial, and economic division of St. Louis. The importance of Pruitt-Igoe was its effect on the way that city planners and architects viewed their role: prior to Pruitt-Igoe’s destruction, “big-box” public housing was generally accepted as an efficient and effective way to house the urban poor. By the early 1970s, however, the social and political order of American cities had fundamentally changed: the violent protests of minority residents and the white flight to the suburbs led to a breakdown of policymaking “from above.” Thus the 1972 demolition of Pruitt-Igoe symbolized the failure of a decades-long policy of housing the extremely poor.
Conceived in the early 1950s as the remedy for St. Louis’s lack of adequate housing and the gritty appearance of poor neighborhoods, Pruitt-Igoe embodied the ideals of modernist social order. The complex relocated the city’s most impoverished residents away from the central business district and allowed extensive urban renewal projects in the older areas of the city, where much of St. Louis’s minority residents lived. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed New York’s World Trade Centers, Pruitt-Igoe followed many tenets of the “International Style” championed by French architect Le Corbusier as the high point of modernist architecture. Working with the St. Louis Housing Authority, Yamasaki designed the cheapest possible plan: cost-saving measures, not just aesthetics, influenced the design of Pruitt-Igoe. For example, Yamasaki designed skip-stop elevators, which only stopped at every third Floor) to reduce the cost of installing an elevator stop on every Floor, and used flimsy, cheap, built-in accessories such as cabinets and doors with latches or knobs that broke off very easily.
Like other twentieth-century public housing complexes, such as Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, Pruitt-Igoe functioned as a city within a city. Set up on a strict geometrical layout, the buildings reinforced the sense of separateness from the rest of St. Louis felt by residents. The design also limited opportunities for social gathering, because the narrow hallways and skip-stop elevators became havens for drug dealers and vandals. By the mid-1960s, nearly 27 percent of the 2,762 available apartments were vacant; although 86 percent of the residents indicated that they would prefer to live elsewhere, 69 percent (of the total residents) had no plans to move out. Pruitt-Igoe housed St. Louis’s most impoverished residents, the displaced African American “underclass” that had nowhere else to go. Racism played a large role in the problems with Pruitt-Igoe; residents felt ignored and mistreated by city officials and the police. Although most residents of Pruitt-Igoe—nearly 88 percent of the men and 92 percent of the women—welcomed police presence in the project as a counter for youth violence and the drug trade, many residents also complained about the way that police treated them. A common complaint was that the police (both the St. Louis police and the project’s police force) took too long to respond to calls, acted disrespectfully to residents, and appeared to disbelieve their complaints.
A multitude of social problems doomed Pruitt-Igoe to failure. There was a high prevalence of divorced or single mothers, for example, as well as youth gangs and drug abuse, and a paucity of responsible adult males. Apathy reigned: hazardous materials, such as broken glass, which no one removed, rendered gathering areas unusable. The complex was also plagued by destructive behavior, both criminal and negligent. Criminal acts included mugging and armed robbery, stealing, men molesting women in elevators and hallways, and fighting. Negligent (noncriminal) acts included the common use of foul language near children, people urinating in the halls and elevators, alcoholism, and filth.
In short, Pruitt-Igoe symbolized all that was wrong with American cities and the cultural and social malaise that resulted in the urban ghetto. Other cities, such as Louisville, Chicago, and Newark, had similar big-box housing complexes with similar problems and results.
- Lawson, Benjamin A., “The Pruitt-Igoe Projects: Modernism, Social Control, and the Failure of Public Housing, 1954-1976.” Master’s Thesis (Oklahoma State University Press, 2007);
- Rainwater, Lee, Behind Ghetto Walls: Black Families in a Federal Slum (Chicago: Aldine and Atherton Publishers, 1970);
- Stromberg, Jerome S., “Private Problems in Public Housing: A Further Report on the Pruitt-Igoe Project.” Occasional Paper no. 39 (1968).
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