I had the opportunity to watch a documentary on Pruitt Igoe, a failed social housing projects in the United States that was created through racism and anti-blackness. A lot of my peer had a difficult time understanding how anti-blackness and racism led to both the construction and the demise of this project. Some of my peers believed that failure of this project was due to bad population projections or that many residents were migrating to the suburbs, but that simply is not the case. Here is a review I wrote on the Pruitt Igoe Myth
The Pruitt Igoe Myth is directed by Chad Freidrichs and provides detail on the construction of this social housing project and its demise. Pruitt-Igoe was an example of fordist housing in the United States, it was large-scale homogenous high-rise to solve specific issues related to slum housing in the downtown area. Not only was Pruitt-Igoe used as a form of downtown renewal, it was also used as a tool for segregation. Pruitt-Igoe spread over 57 acres in St. Louis, Missouri, it housed mostly lower to middle class income families in the community. At the beginning of the development the housing solution seem as if it was a success, the residents were pleased and the units were well maintained. However, that quickly changed due to white flight in St. Louis in many other Northern cities in the United States. As Frey (1977) argues “racially motivated movement patterns and discriminatory housing practices, when superimposed upon market forces of the period, served to exacerbate the selective mobility of whites to the suburbs (p. 426).” With the whites and industries leaving the city center heading towards the suburbs there was a dramatic drop in the city’s population and tax based. They could no longer afford to maintain these units. The film succinctly demonstrated how both institutionalized racism and white flight impacted urban planning in St. Louis, Missouri. In particular, it highlights how racist policies related to housing led to Pruitt-Igoe to become derelict over time.
It is critical that we acknowledge the creation and failure of Pruitt-Igoe is centered around anti-black racism. During this time in the United States the Civil Rights movement was still occurring and the pivotal case of Brown v Board was decided, where schools could no longer be segregated by race. A lot of the policies created during this time were de facto segregation, this was segregation not by law, but by fact (Hall, 2005, p. 1251). Slum clearance and public housing where tools used to redistribute land to suit those in power (Friedrich, 2011). As the film highlights, urban renewal was use as a form of displacement to remove African-Americans from the downtown core. At that time, African-Americans did not have the same privileges as white-Americans. As Hall (2005) outlines zoning boards made these communities undesirable, real estate agents controlled who was allowed to buy property and at what prices, banks denied mortgages to African-Americans, and the Federal Housing Administration had lending policies that favoured segregation (p. 1241).
As mentioned earlier, population change greatly impacted the community, through data the city believed that the population would grow, so the development taking place in St. Louis was appropriate. Growth defined the war years and was expected to continue on. However, this was not the case. Although migrants from the South were coming into the city, and should have added to the growth. As we know this was not the case, the city population decreased due to residents moving out towards the suburbs.
The federal government had subsidies to make the suburbs affordable to the white middle class. So, whereas we saw funds from the government for slum removal, there was also funds for creation of an urban utopia for the middle class. These subsidies by the federal government eroded the tax base that St. Louis had which led to demise of Pruitt-Igoe. Without that large tax base in the city, the municipal government could no longer afford to provide services to all of its communities, this included the maintenance of Pruitt-Igoe. The same unsafe and unsanitary housing conditions the city was working to eliminate through slum clearance and public housing returned due to affordable suburbs. They city and city officials were working against themselves.
As noted in the film, the creation of Pruitt-Igoe and dealing with the influx of migrants in St. Louis were all top-down decisions. This is what city officials, planners, architects, and elites thought would be best for the city. Developers and investors enjoy the idea of slum clearance since it allowed for profitable re-development, they became the decision makers not those in need of affordable housing. Fordism often looked at solving issues at the macro scale, through large developments. But often not taking consideration of items at the micro scale, such as upward mobility, discrimination, and taxes. It is impossible to plan accordingly for community without engaging with community members, with top-down decision making the interests are created by the elites. In Bristol (1991), The Pruitt- Igoe Myth, George Kassabaum, a project architect for the building points out “you had middle class whites like myself designing for an entirely different group (p. 167).” Bristol goes on to argue “the implication was that low-income urban blacks constituted a tenant group with special needs: They were not instill with the middle-class value of taking pride in the upkeep of their environment, and they also brought with them certain destructive behaviours (p. 167).” Bristol argues that design and lack of consultation with the community was a factor that led to buildings to become derelict over time. Although, in the film the former residents discuss that they enjoyed the property and for some this was the first time of homeownership. Bristol highlights that many did not feel a sense of belonging, we saw this in the film with the widespread vandalism that took place.
Sandercock (2003) argues that diversity is part of the goal when planning in urban contexts and that we should plan for just cities, where everyone is treated with respect no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual preference (Sandercock, 2003). This is accurate, cities should be planned and designed that they are just for everyone. June-Manning Thomas (2008) argues for the need of the minority planner to create just cities, this is because minority race planners are perceived to be part of the community they are serving and are able to engage with the community differently (p. 239). Minority-race planners reflect the community they are serving and are able to sympathize with some of issues the community are going through. These are both planning practices that work today, but it would be difficult to use these practices in a segregated America of the past.
Was it possible to create urban policy to preserve social housings developments in the 1950’s? The short answer is no. We have to remember a majority of the policies that were in place were de facto segregation. Segregation was promoted through these urban policies at all levels of government and finance. To actually have policies to preserve social housing developments, we would have to have policies that were not discriminatory and racist. At that time most cities in the United States were not progressive, so Pruitt-Igoe and other social housing developments were bound to fail. In the film, they discuss the community of Blackjack and one of the first by-laws they created after they incorporated was to prohibit the construction of apartment buildings. As one resident states, they wanted to keep “trash people” out. Another resident states “if the colored move in and run real estate values down it is bound to create tension and you will have mixed-marriages and they becoming equal with whites.” From these sentiments alone, it is clear how people viewed African-Americans at that time. The entire system was against them.
Ideally, you would create policy that allowed everyone fair and equal access to social housing and ensure that all units are rent-geared-to-income. However, the Fair Housing Act was not enacted in the United States until 1968, just a few years before the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe (Yinger, 1986, p. 881). The act allowed that you could not refuse to sell or rent housing to anyone due to race, religion, sex, and colour. Meaning, a number of changes that could have possibility reduce white flight and allow for the equal home ownership for everybody did not take place until the project was already failing. If these laws were created earlier, it is possible that Pruitt-Igoe would not have failed as badly as it did.
I found it interesting in the way in which the state policed families living in Pruitt-Igoe, it was stipulated in the agreement that black fathers could be housed with their families. Meaning Pruitt-Igoe was home for mothers and their children. This stipulation of removing black fathers from the household added to the myth that there was a large percent of absentee fathers in the black community.
Pruitt-Igoe was a failed social housing project in St. Louis, Missouri that failed for a number of socio-economic reasons. We can highlight the hollowing out of the city’s population, eroding tax base, industries moving out, social housing as the end all solution for poverty, and incorrect growth calculations. The social housing project was a large scale project to allow for slum clearance and urban renewal, yet those in power never consulted the community what they actually needed. They created a solution that they thought would benefit the community. However, the main factor that led to the demise of the social housing project was institutional racism. If we examine the policies at the time, they were manufactured for segregation and only exacerbated inequality in the city.
Bristol, K. G. (1991). The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Journal of Architectural Education, 44(3), 162-171. doi: 10.1080/10464883.1991.11102687
Freidrichs, C. (Director). (2011). The Pruitt-Igoe Myth [Documentary]. United States: Unicorn Stencil.
Frey, W. (1979). Central City White Flight: Racial and Nonracial Causes. American Sociological Review, 44(3), 425-448. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2094885
Hall, J. D. (2005). The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past. The Journal of American History, 91(4), 1233-1263.
Sandercock, L. (2003). Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities. London, UK: Continuum.
Thomas, J. M. (2008). The Minority-Race Planner in the Quest for a Just City. Planning Theory, 7(3), 227–247. doi: 10.1177/1473095208094822
Yinger, J. (1986). Measuring Racial Discrimination with Fair Housing Audits: Caught in the Act. The American Economic Review, 76(5),881-893.