By Eric Uhlfelder
Pruitt-Igoe, the housing project pictured last month on the front page of WestView as it was being demolished, didn’t fail only due to the lack of maintenance. I went to school in St. Louis—an urban studies major at Washington University a decade after the project’s destruction—and we visited the site and spoke with former tenants.
The main reasons why that project failed are akin to what the city does here when it plants street trees but fails to protect them against dog pee.
Originally, Pruitt-Igoe was a segregated vision…Pruitt for blacks; Igoe for whites. You can only imagine what happened after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision demanded integration in this federal-ly-funded project. The vast majority of tenants that came to live in Pruitt-Igoe were very poor with limited education. They had never lived in anything remotely as modern as these mundane blocks—Le Corbusier’s ideal.
Project budgetary constraints were also key. University of California, Berkeley scholar, Katharine Bristol, found:
“In a 1975 study of the St. Louis Housing Authority’s expenditures on Pruitt-Igoe, political scientist Eugene Meehan analyzed the extent to which these budget constraints affected the final design. In ad-dition to the elimination of amenities such as children’s play areas and landscaping and ground-floor bathrooms, the cost cutting targeted points of contact between the ten-ants and the living units. ‘The quality of the hardware was so poor that door knobs and locks were broken on initial use….Window panes were blown from in adequate frames by wind pressure. In the kitchens, cabinets were made of the thinnest plywood possible.’”
The apartments came with amenities that many didn’t even know how to use. Would you believe that some tenants built fires in bathtubs to cook? Additionally, elevators stopped on only every third floor…the idea being to promote more personal integration among tenants. Imagine that today?
And there’s the all too common problem when you warehouse poor people into far denser settings than traditional row homes and pre-war apartment buildings; problems associated with poverty and the lack of smarts and community were all exacerbated. And the public housing authority failed to realize these problems early on or in any timely manner and permitted conditions to deteriorate because of an overriding belief that the poor and minority deserved what they made of the place.
Failure was also precipitated by a decline in occupancy not too many years after the project was built. The local housing authority was supposed to fund maintenance through rents. People quickly decided that most other housing alternatives were superior to this project. There should’ve been far greater oversight of these public assets but maintenance was far down the list of why Pruitt-Igoe failed. See the linked article here: http://www.pruitt-igoe.com/ temp/1991-bristol-pruitt-igoemyth.pdf.
Most ironically, a lead architect of Pruitt-Igoe ended up designing the original World Trade Center.