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The bigger picture of Pruitt-Igoe

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 10, 2011 - The site was bounded by Cass Avenue on the north, North Jefferson Avenue on the west, Carr Street on the south, and North 20th Street on the east.

By the time Brian King was 10 years old, he'd experienced his oldest brother's murder, a gun to his own head and a narrow escape from an apartment fire set by another brother's rivals. These and other life-scarring moments defined King's 1960s St. Louis childhood at the Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

"All I could think about as a child was how to kill the person that killed my brother," King, 51, said.

Rampant violence, shattered lives, broken windows and systematic segregation are typical themes conjured up by the mention of Pruitt-Igoe. The federal housing project, hailed by city planners in the early 1950s as the solution to the issues of urban development and renewal, is a stain on St. Louis that many would rather forget.

A new documentary seeks to implode the myths around the dream that was literally blown up two decades after it first towered above north St. Louis. "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" premieres this weekend at Mississippi's Oxford Film Festival and the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Mont. Just announced: The film will make its St. Louis debut April 9 at the Missouri History Museum.

It's imperative for people in St. Louis and across the country to keep talking and thinking about the bigger picture of Pruitt-Igoe, according to producer Brian Woodman.

"It has always been simplified to, 'Oh, that was a bad place'," Woodman said. "But a lot of the factors that led to its demise were larger than Pruitt-Igoe."

No Easy Answers

The myths around Pruitt-Igoe are three-fold, according to director Chad Freidrichs. One, it was a simple architectural failure; two, it symbolized the folly of all government projects; and three, its descent and demise were the residents' fault.

"The myth was that they were given this wonderful housing project and they tore it up," Freidrichs said.

In viewing a screener made available to journalists, one can see the many ways in which residents were dehumanized, for example, by the city's failure to maintain the project. Elevators soaked up the stench of urine and often failed to work. Floodwater from broken pipes was allowed to stand, and trash piled up. As residents moved out, drug addicts moved in. Eventually, police refused to answer calls to the project, and chaos prevailed in this forgotten mini-city of 2,870 apartments in 33 11-story buildings. 

Using a mix of old and new footage, the 83-minute documentary takes a wide view of Pruitt-Igoe in the historical context of disappearing industrial jobs and white flight. These issues plagued not only St. Louis but many other American cities, and their impact can be seen today.

"The fact that we don't talk about Pruitt-Igoe is in some ways emblematic of how we're still not looking at these issues now," Woodman said. "What was happening in Pruitt-Igoe is illustrative of urban poverty that St. Louis has been dealing with for decades."

For The Children

After King was contacted by the documentary makers, he agreed to appear in the film for one reason: to send a warning about children growing up in housing projects. Kids internalize their environment, he said, and pass its effects on to their own children, according to King, now a quality control technician in the aerospace industry who lives near Washington, D.C.

"You get in that defensive mode, you get in that angry mode, that's how you see the world," King said. "You're ready to kill; you're ready to take. You feel bitter and you want to know, 'Why me?' And that's not a switch you can turn off and on."

The film serves as a cautionary tale to urban planners, according to Sylvester Brown, 53, a local journalist who has described his Pruitt-Igoe upbringing in numerous articles. Relocating a population and crushing its culture are perilous to any city.

"If we're going to remember anything, it's that the poor people, the low-income people and the black people contribute a culture to the city," Brown said. "When you redevelop, you've got to redevelop around that culture, around that history."

The Good Times

For many of those interviewed in the film, Pruitt-Igoe holds good memories as well as bad. And often forgotten is that from its confines sprung numerous success stories, including Robbie Montgomery, a back-up singer for Ike and Tina Turner and now owner of Sweetie Pie's soul food restaurants, and former Missouri state Rep. Betty Thompson.

Brown recalls the delicious cooking aromas wafting through the project's walls, the dance parties, the mothers taking turns watching each others' children and the sense of shared identity.

"I think that speaks to the African-American experience; no matter how dire the situation, we find a way to make a community," Brown said. "We did it during slavery and we did it during Reconstruction. We find a way to make the best of it."

The friendships and the fun are all important components in the history of Pruitt-Igoe, agreed several former residents. "You were never alone," film participant Valerie Sills recalled, in the documentary.

"All of that got ignored in the symbol of Pruitt-Igoe as a failure," Woodman said. "But it wasn't just one kind of experience for the residents; most people had a mix."

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