Monday, December 2, 2013

movie notes : the Pruitt-Igoe Myth

The Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project being given up on as a failure and imploded after only 18 years after taking over $300 million (in 2013 dollars)  to build.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011) was imperfect but still an interesting documentary about rise and fall of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project. One thing that stuck with me is that the introduction and conclusion assert that blaming modernist architecture, the welfare state and residents as causes of the decline of Pruitt-Igoe were mythical and that there were other external reasons for the decline. Interestingly, while watching it, it seemed that a fair amount of the material presented does point some blame in the direction of the so called myths.

I've strung together a few clips that I found interesting. Below is a partial transcript of those clips and some commentary.

The Myth of the Pruitt-Igoe Myth

clip one - introduction
The Pruitt-Igoe public housing development in St Louis, Missouri was opened in 1954 and demolished in 1972.
"What caused the failure? The Pruitt-Igoe myth begins here. … Some blame the architect, Modernist high rises like Pruitt-Igoe the say created a breeding ground for isolation, vandalism and crime … Others attacked the welfare state. Big government, the problem and Pruitt-Igoe the result. … Many stated flatly that the residents were too poor, uneducated or rural. That they caused their own problems and had taken Pruitt-Igoe with them. … Long after the dust settled and the site was cleared this was the Pruitt-Igoe that remained. The mythical Pruitt-Igoe with a fatal flaw, doomed to failure from the start."
here is your myth checklist :
  • modernist architecture
  • the welfare state
  • the residents caused their own problems

clip two -  conclusion (starts at 3:25)
"The implosion footage was so shocking just because there was still in people's minds the idea that this had been the solution. It was a very painful moment of truth to see that failure. That's why in many ways that Pruitt-Igoe is not just the national and even the world symbol for the failure of American public housing it's also been a symbol for the perceived failure of well intentioned government policies in general. And that's why I think its so important to look beyond the famous pictures of the towers being destroyed and really try to understand what failed and why. In some ways Pruitt-Igoe failed because housing alone couldn't deal with the most basic issues that were troubling the American city. There was just no way to build your way out of that tragedy. I think we have a responsibility to understand those failures and to learn from them and to do better." – Robert Fishman (urban historian)

"We don't want people to think of Pruitt-Igoe as a failure if they're going to then to translate that failure into all public housing or all government programs or all social welfare or all modernism. That is what Pruitt-Igoe has been freighted with. If we want to say that this one project, in this one place, for this one set of reasons declined to the point where people thought it was necessary to tear it down that's one thing. But that's simply not how we've told the story."

What a bizarre standard for judging failure!  If someone suggests a systemic problem then people should pretend Pruitt-Igoe was a roaring success? That attitude makes me doubt how much some people want to learn from the failure if they refuse to consider some potential causes. 
The bigger story is in fact the decline of the city overall. What happened to St Louis was tragic. It's kind of a slow motion Katrina in a way. St Louis lost half its population and had a devastated tax base and a drained economy over the course of 50 years from World War II even to the present. It's no wonder Pruitt-Igoe declined in those circumstances. I mean, it would be hard to imagine a public housing project surviving under those conditions" – Joseph Heathcott
Did other housing survive? Did other neighborhoods in St Louis survive? If so then it suggests that there might have been something unique to Pruitt-Igoe being a government project and in being a political project. 

clip three - planning and control (starts at 6:11)
"Before we moved into Pruitt-Igoe, the Welfare Department came to our home, they talked with my mother about moving into the housing project but the stipulation was that my father could not be with us. They would put us into the housing projects only if he left the state. My mother and father discussed it and they decided it was best for the 12 children for the father to leave the home. And that's how we got into the projects"  – Jacquelyn Williams (former resident) 
Gee, what could go wrong.  Surely, the Welfare Dept. didn't see itself as splitting a family apart and positioning the government and/or modernist architecture to be a replacement parent. I bet the Department was mostly concerned not with any consequences but if it could recruit enough residents to meet the bureaucracy's expectations. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn't let us know if her parents came to regret that decision.

"The Welfare Department had a rule that no able bodied man could be in the house if a woman received aid for dependent children. If a man lost his job and was looking for work he still had to leave the home. There was even a night staff of men who worked for the welfare department whose job was to go to the homes of the welfare recipients and they searched to find if there was a man in the home."  – Joyce Ladner (sociologist)
"There were so many restrictions. We couldn't have a telephone. We couldn't have a television."  – Jacquelyn Williams (former resident) 

The rules of the housing project concerning TVs were changed a few years later. I'm not sure about the phone rule. Sometimes control is about control.

clip four - "unbreakable" (starts at 9:45)
"I think it created a mindset for the inhabitants that they weren't cared about and I think that manifested itself in a way that caused more harm to the tenants than an other entity. The vandalism that existed at Pruitt-Igoe came from that environment. Things allowed to just deteriorate and people not really caring. And so management decided, well instead of  trying to enhance their existence we'll just make things so they can't be destroyed. Everything had to be protected. Light fixtures; no light exposed and shields around them with mesh metal protecting the bulb. Y'know, the fact that it was indestructible made you want to try to destroy things."  – Brian King (former resident)
This does seem inherent to public housing as when most people destroy their own property they find that they have to spend their own money to replace it.  The modernist dream of regimenting people into designated communal areas led to a tragedy of the commons.
"There was a screen around the lightbulb that kept you from breaking them. Y'know, kids'll be kids, find a way to break 'em. … they took all the lights off the elevator, put 'em, recessed them up into the ceiling and then they tried to cover that up with plexiglass but sometimes people would try to set that plexiglass on fire. Sometimes instead of taking the trash and putting it inside the incinerator, they just set it on fire right out there in the middle of the floor… After I moved away from Pruitt-Igoe, I went on to become a police officer with St Louis City… I do remember people calling the police and trying to come into the buildings and the would drop just anything they could find. Trash; throw trash out the window. I remember that. I remember them throwing firebombs out onto the police cars. I remember they did that.  So there is enough blame to go around."  – Valerie Sills (former resident)
"I don't think that people rationalized that somebody's house burned down or people could be killed. I think they just saw that firetruck or that  police car or that ambulance as the enemy. It was just bitter people, angry people and that was a way of making a statement. We're not happy here and we want you to know it. And the way you gonna know it is these bricks and bottles will rain down on you no matter who it's saving , no matter how relevant or important it is. We want you to understand you're not welcome here."  – Brian King (former resident)

Contrary to Le Corbusier and the Modernists, communities are built through human interaction and individual decisions and do not spring into existence as soon as an architect declares something to be communal property.  I don't think it would be too harsh to suggest that some of the residents "caused their own problems" as I think most would consider their home being on fire to be a problem.

The movie suggests that the problems with Pruitt-Igoe were caused not by modernist architecture, the welfare state or some of the residents but by was racism, housing discrimination, segregation and the rise of suburbanism. This seems less convincing when one realizes that blacks lived in places other than Pruitt-Igoe and lived there successfully without lighting the place on fire or shattering their own light bulbs. It is true that a person can die if they have no food for a month but that does not mean that it isn't also true that a person can die from a lack of oxygen.

From the Housing & Urban Development publication Creating Defensible Space by Oscar Newman (April 1996) p11 (PDF)
"Across the street from Pruitt-Igoe was an older, smaller, rowhouse complex, Carr Square Village,  occupied by an identical population. It had remained fully occupied and trouble-free throughout the construction, occupancy, and decline of Pruitt-Igoe."

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