If you haven't heard of Pruitt-Igoe, it's likely that you've seen it. The photos and footage of the powerful demolition of the 1950s-era low-income housing in St. Louis have certainly made their rounds since the event in 1972. At its peak occupancy in 1957, Pruitt-Igoe's 33 high-rise buildings housed 15,000 people, but decline was swift and painful. Despite the best of intentions through the United States Housing Act of 1949, the housing project quickly turned into an axis of crime. An Economist article describes the eventual tragic situation:
By the late 1960s the buildings had been denuded of its residents, the number of windows broken to the point where it was possible to see straight through to the other side. The residents that remained had to act tough for the chance to come and go unmolested.
The project was overtaken with drug deals, theft, and arson. Proponents of the original project were quick to jump to the conclusion that something in the architectural scheme must have been flawed - they cited the skip-stop elevators, height of the buildings, etc. However, a New York Times article from the last month compares Pruitt-Igoe and a very architecturally similar housing development in the Chelsea area of New York City - the successful cousin of Pruitt-Igoe. This development has been so successful that it is still occupied by so many of the original tenants that, despite it not being an official retirement community, it still qualifies for special grants in that realm. So what went wrong with Pruitt-Igoe?
In the last few years, fascinating interviews with past residents and politicians, scholarly papers, and a documentary have helped us to conclude that Pruitt-Igoe's demise cannot be strictly identified as having to do with architectural structure; rather, a multitude of factors came into play. Conflicting movements from the Housing Act both encouraged people to move to the suburbs and also invested funds in low-income housing. Money for upkeep of the buildings was severely lacking. The creation of the physical community (buildings, parks) did not include any development of the social community (such as employment programs). Rather than being an issue of strictly architectural structure, Pruitt-Igoe had one of social infrastructure. Pruitt-Igoe's demise heralded the total loss of faith in government bureaucracies' ability to solve social problems.
If this depresses you, worry not. These days we see CDCs (community development corporations) and other community based organization stepping into this realm of developing social infrastructure along side the built environment. The redevelopment effort in public housing has taken on new approaches that build and rehab affordable housing but also that assure that building community with residents is at the center. It certainly took a tragic turn of events to learn it, but we now know there's more to housing than the house or apartment itself.
Guest Contributor: Hannah Silver