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St. Louis, Missouri is one of the most heard about cities in the United States; it is also a major port city in the country. St. Louis is a large city with densely populated urban areas. The most recent survey showed that its current population exceeds 315 thousand residents. Throughout its history, St. Louis has seen periods of rapid expansion and growth dictated by the attraction of large groups of the American population to its urban areas. As a result, the housing of the city had to be adjusted in order to be able to host the expanding number of dwellers.
However, as it often happens in the urban centers all around the world, the parts of the city that saw a rapid expansion were also affected by a fast decline. One of the most legendary urban housing projects implemented in the territory of St. Louis during its growth was Pruitt-Igoe project that was designed for the purpose of offering new accommodations for the urban population of the city.
This housing project is known to have been rather short-lived and is often regarded as a major failure of a design as its demolition followed its opening in just about a couple of decades. Pruitt-Igoe urban housing project and its history can serve as an excellent demonstration of the economic and social changes the city of St. Louis faced in the 1950s and 1960s; today, the project’s history works as a reminder of the city planning complexities and the need for a sustainable approach to urban construction, expansion, and revitalization.
Project Initiation and Design
Pruitt-Igoe urban housing development project was the response of the St. Louis city authorities to the problems of overpopulation and decay in the inner city areas (“Public Housing Has a Bad Name”). The entire project was sponsored by the government and represented the care that the political authorities show as a reaction to socioeconomic issues concerning housing and overpopulation.
In that way, this public housing development, as well as its quick and unexpected decay, has been interpreted as a symbol of the low quality of any projects sponsored and supervised by the government. Practically, Pruitt-Igoe is often recognized as a failure of the government to fund a housing project appropriately or to take about the residents of the city (“Public Housing Has a Bad Name”). Consequently, the very concept of public housing is often regarded as something untrustworthy and of extensively low quality.
Pruitt-Igoe public housing project was comprised of 33 buildings each of which had 11 floors; overall, the project was to occupy a portion of land as large as 57 acres (Bristol 163-164). The panning of the project began at the onset of the 1950s when it was decided that the entire site would consist of two major parts – the first one was named after an African-American pilot W. O. Pruitt and was expected to house specifically Black residents, and the second part received the name of Congressman Igoe and was to host white dwellers of St. Louis.
A total of 15000 tenants were planned to be placed in the territory of Pruitt-Igoe. Also, it is important to mention that the buildings on the site were specifically situated very close to one another for a higher level of density; as specified by Bristol, “the high density resulted from housing and redevelopment officials’ expectations that these projects would eventually come to house not only those displaced by slum clearance… but also by demolition for redevelopment projects and for future public housing” (164). In that way, initially, the project was expected to include multiple tenants to accommodate a large number of displaced families.
Decline of Pruitt-Igoe
Completed by the middle of the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe project was a representation of an optimistic view of the revitalization of the declining districts of the densely populated city center and a smart government initiative helping address some the major socioeconomic problems such as unemployment, poverty, and high rates of criminal activity. However, the images of the newly opened Pruitt-Igoe are often contrasted against the ones that occurred approximately a decade later when the relatively new site was destroyed and sunk in violence, crime, vandalism, and poverty.
Pruitt-Igoe is described as a “dumping ground” for the impoverished groups of the urban population (Rainwater 9). In addition, the decline of Pruitt-Igoe is frequently explained as caused by the inability of its new residents to get accustomed to the city life; according to this opinion, the poor dwellers of the area torn apart their new homes due to facing a difficulty in adaptation to the urban way of living (“Public Housing Has a Bad Name”).
The standard approach to the story of Pruitt-Igoe revolves around the hope that was broken and the heavy disillusionment that followed. However, discussing the phenomenon that resulted in the failure of Pruitt-Igoe, it is important to remember that the aforementioned perspective is just one view on the events. This point of view does not take into consideration some of the critical factors that contributed to the decay of the site. In particular, first of all, Pruitt-Igoe is one of the largest public housing projects of the time supervised by the government which failed to provide sufficient funding for the high-quality construction.
Secondly, the first decade after the site was opened has seen a massive outflow of the urban population from St. Louis and the abandonment of many urban areas – a phenomenon typical for many industrial cities worldwide (“Public Housing Has a Bad Name”). Finally, in the 1950s and 1960s, public housing projects such as Pruitt-Igoe was a common tool for the enforcement of “clearance of poor and working-class neighborhoods” that in reality was the major way to facilitate and maintain racial segregation in the cities (“Public Housing Has a Bad Name”).
By the end of the 1960s, due to the rapidly progressing decay of Pruitt-Igoe, the government authorities started to encourage the remaining dwellers of the area to relocate (Bristol 166). This was the case because living in the area had become very dangerous; in fact, soon after that, the buildings of Pruitt-Igoe were recognized unsuited for living. However, prior to the decision to level the entire site, the city and government authorities spent a significant amount of funds for the purpose of maintenance of the tenants (Bristol 167). Overall, about 60 million dollars was spent on versatile adjustments that never helped prevent the destruction of the buildings.
The Causes of Failure and Meaning
As specified by Lawson, “the Pruitt-Igoe complex, which attained social, cultural, economic, and political significance when city officials began dynamiting it in 1972, was one of the most visible–and misunderstood–symbols of the late Vietnam-era urban malaise” (2). Instead of viewing the failure of Pruitt-Igoe in accordance with the well-known myth about the violent and wasteful nature of the populations who were placed there, one could review the construction and planning of the building and the site.
In particular, Bristol pointed out that “corridors were too long and not visible from the apartment… The entryways, located in large, unprotected open plazas, did not allow tenants any control over who entered the building” (167). The aforementioned factors contributed to the feeling of alienation of the dwellers from the buildings, prevented the people from connecting with the areas and considering it their home.
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Additionally, the fiscal problem was another significant determinant of the construction failure of Pruitt-Igoe. Practically, the extremely low cost of the construction resulted in the creation of low-quality tenants that literally expired within the next couple of decades and became unsuitable for habitation and dangerous to be around.
Pruitt-Igoe public housing project is a known symbol of a construction failure that was initiated, supervised, and funded by the government. The initial explanation of the quick deterioration of the site and its consequent demolition linked the decay of Pruitt-Igoe to the kinds of people that inhabited it. However, in reality, the actual factors that contributed to the failure were multiple and complex. First of all, this public housing project was completed at a very low cost, and thus resulted in the construction of poor-quality buildings that fell apart within a couple decades. Secondly, the architectural design of the areas and spaces there encouraged criminal behaviors and endangered the dwellers. Finally, the entire project, as well and the initial explanations of its failure are directly linked to the intention to segregate the people of St. Louis on a racial basis.
Bristol, Katharine G. “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.” Pruitt-Igoe, 1991, . Accessed 13 May 2017.
Lawson, Benjamin Alexander. The Pruitt-Igoe Projects: Modernism, Social Control, and the Failure of Public Housing, 1954-1976.
“Public Housing Has a Bad Name.” Pruitt-Igoe, n.d.
Rainwater, Lee. Behind Ghetto Walls: Black Families in a Federal Slum. Transaction Publishers, 1970.