The St. Louis Problem: Pruitt-Igoe And The Social Factors That Led To Its Eventual Destruction

Internationally known for its iconic self-destruction and failure of urban renewal and public housing, Pruitt-Igoe, the now-demolished urban housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, remains an interesting topic of discussion pertaining to urban decline, the rise of suburbia, and racial segregation.

To begin, we must first understand the socio-political climate of the 1940s and 50s of St. Louis.

In 1940, it was revealed that St. Louis was one of four cities to experience a downturn in population. They went from 821,960 people in 1930 to 816,048 in 1940. Alarmed at the potentially significant population loss, the local government realized they had to do something about it. In 1947, the St. Louis government took action to remedy population loss and declared a restructuring of certain neighborhoods.

DeSoto-Carr, a predominantly black neighborhood, was chosen as the site of reconstruction. Authorities, fearing further loss in land value, quickly acted to demolish the run-down houses (which were reported to be in slum-like conditions) and erect residential blocks and a public park. They didn’t believe that gentrification was possible, as the houses were too decayed, leading to their decision. However, initial plans were rejected for high-density public housing. With high-density housing came increased revenue, public spaces, and commercial spaces. The mayor, Joseph Darst, impressed by housing projects built in New York City, believed that this was the solution to St. Louis’ population problem.

With the passing of The Housing Act Of 1949 (which now allowed the federal government to issue public housing), St. Louis was issued a federal loan to finance 5,800 public housing units. This started the construction of Cochran Gardens, Pruitt-Igoe, Darst-Webbe, and Vaughn housing projects.

Pruitt-Igoe was designed by architects George Hellmuth and Minoru Yamasaki (who went on to design the World Trade Center), at the request of Darst himself. The project, when it was completed (Pruitt was completed in September 1955 and Igoe in February 1956), contained 2,870 units in 33 buildings limited to 11 stories.

Pruitt-Igoe
Pruitt-Igoe

It should be noted here that racial segregation was still active and seen as the norm at this point in time. Pruitt-Igoe was intended for “young middle-class white and black tenants, segregated into different buildings, [with] Darst-Webbe for low-income white tenants.” This ended in 1956, and Pruitt-Igoe, along with many other housing projects became racially integrated.

Low angle oblique USGS photograph.
Low angle oblique USGS photograph.

After its construction, Pruitt-Igoe was praised as a tour de force in urban renewal. It was actually praised as “vertical neighborhoods for poor people,” by Architectural Forum. Pruitt-Igoe was located on 57 acres near the North Side of St. Louis. Its 2,870 units made it one of the largest housing projects in the country. However, despite its size, the units were actually small. Elevators skipped floors, forcing residents to use the stairs. Ventilation was poor. Garbage chutes were small. There were more than 20 families to a communal room. These would lead to a vast array of problems later on.

In fact, William H. Whyte, a sociologist who studied human behavior in urban settings wrote, “A good new space builds a new constituency. It stimulates people into new habits — al fresco lunches — and provides new paths to and from work, new places to pause.” Granted, Whyte explains this in regards to a public plaza, but perhaps, it is possible that this applies to communities within urban settings, specifically public housing.

It is not often that one remarks of public housing as efficient, or clean, or friendly. It’s quite often the opposite. With Pruitt-Igoe, multiple families to one communal room meant not enough familiarity to that space. Bodies enter, becomes displaced, leave, becomes replaced, and so on. Residents have remarked that it came to a point where it became impossible to distinguish resident from intruder because of the fluidity, and perhaps the transitory nature of these said bodies. Unlike a public setting, where it is apparent to man that they will be subject to bodies moving around, there is still the “personal bubble,” which is respected by other dwellers (or participants) of that setting. In a communal hall in Pruitt-Igoe, that bubble is tested, and violated over and over again, as these small spaces subject them to potential intruders and unfamiliar faces.

The lack of space, and the constriction of such, did not build camaraderie amongst tenants. They were thrown into this confined space, which did not stimulate positive social behavior, nor did it provide new paths or places to reflect. I should mention here that potential tenants were not granted approval by the housing department unless the man of the household agreed to not live with the family. Men were forced to live apart from their family. Their wives ended up taking care of the children, and sometimes it came to the oldest son to “be a man.” This lack of a father figure perhaps attributed further the gradual decay of structure within Pruitt-Igoe.

Abandoned dwellings in the Pruitt-Igoe housing development became the target of vandals.
Abandoned dwellings in the Pruitt-Igoe housing development became the target of vandals.

It did not help Pruitt-Igoe and its residents that funding was often cut and rent raised to attempt to pay for maintenance. (St. Louis, despite the attempts of the government, steadily lost its population, and since housing projects rely on overcrowding, Pruitt-Igoe lost residents, or income.) And so, this led to overflowing trash, broken light bulbs, broken elevators, urine-stained walls, dark corridors, and broken windows. Residents felt unsafe in stairwells — and even elevators — where muggers and potential rapists hid. Katharine G. Bristol outlines this in her essay, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.

The skip-stop elevators and galleries, far from promoting community association, had proved to be opportune environments for violent crime. Forced to walk through the galleries to reach their apartments, residents were threatened and attacked by gangs, who used these spaces as hangouts. Residents were also frequently attacked in the elevators. (Bristol)

St. Louis had had enough of Pruitt-Igoe by 1968. Residents were encouraged to leave, at the request of the Department Of Housing, and by 1971, it was agreed that two buildings of Pruitt-Igoe would be demolished. They reasoned that a condensed living arrangement would possibly alleviate the situation, and moved the remaining residents into the remaining buildings. The destruction of the first building in 1972 prompted Charles Jenck to pen this infamous quote: “Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 3.32pm (or thereabouts).” It was the beginning of the end for the much-touted savior of urban renewal.

 April 1972. The second, widely televised demolition of a Pruitt-Igoe building that followed the March 16 demolition
April 1972. The second, widely televised demolition of a Pruitt-Igoe building that followed the March 16 demolition.
April 1972. The second, widely televised demolition of a Pruitt-Igoe building that followed the March 16 demolition.
April 1972. The second, widely televised demolition of a Pruitt-Igoe building that followed the March 16 demolition.

Eventually, in 1973, it was decided that demolishing Pruitt-Igoe was the best solution. And all remaining 800 residents, out of the peak of 15,000, were relocated. The buildings were demolished one-by-one, until nothing was left standing in 1977. Pruitt-Igoe is considered an architectural failure amongst social and the economic decline of St. Louis. Add segregation, whites moving to the suburbs, lack of employable men in the projects to the factors and Pruitt-Igoe becomes further and further complex. But it can be agreed that Pruitt-Igoe, once heralded as the savior of urban renewal, demolished within a decade, ultimately exemplifying social ignorance, highlighting the nuances of social structure, need to be maintained (as described above) to fulfill the idea of a neighborhood and preserve familiarity, which is what keeps residents — ultimately, us — comfortable and safe. TC mark

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