The Tragic Story Of An Ambitious American Housing Project

pruitt igoe implosion

The Pruitt-Igoe housing project was celebrated as a haven for St. Louis’s poorest residents when it first opened in 1956.

City officials bragged about its running water, spacious green lawns, and reliable electricity. It was hailed as a major improvement for the city’s working poor. And at first, everything seemed great for the complex’s 12,000 residents.

20 years later, Pruitt-Igoe was a symbol of urban decay and the defacto segregation policies that kept blacks in city ghettoes across the country. Drug addicts squatted in its abandoned buildings, windows went unfixed, and school children had to steer clear of dangerous gangs.

In 1972, St. Louis declared the complex an emergency zone, evacuated its residents, and imploded three of the buildings with dynamite. Two years later, the city demolished the remaining 30 buildings, leaving 55 acres vacant on the city’s north side.

Filmmaker Chad Friedrichs made a documentary¬†chronicling the rise and fall of the housing project and the policies that led to its decline. The 2011 film, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, included¬†photos and footage from St. Louis’ public archives.

Prior to the construction of Pruitt-Igoe, the working class residents of St. Louis were crammed into slums with communal bathrooms (or none at all), unreliable electricity, and streets filled with trash.

Reformers wanted to remove people from the inhumane conditions of the slums, and local politicians thought they were an eyesore. So beginning in the late 1940s, federal and state governments began funding massive public housing projects in inner cities.

Pruitt-Igoe was built with that big federal spending push. It cost around $36 million to construct.

Pruitt and Igoe were originally designed as separate, segregated housing projects. Pruitt, named for a Tuskeegee airman, was for blacks, and Igoe, named after a white politician, was for whites.

The complex was massive, with 33 buildings spread across 57 acres of land, and room for 12,000 residents. It was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who later designed the World Trade centre towers.

When it was finished in 1956, local politicians said Pruitt-Igoe offered everything the slums lacked: Electric lights, indoor plumbing, and large green spaces where children could play.

Families that had once shared a room suddenly had bedrooms and fresh-plastered walls.

The apartments were small, but seemed far better than the alternative.

For a few years, Pruitt-Igoe ran smoothly, and the project had enough renters to pay for round-the-clock patrols and building maintenance.

Pruitt-Igoe's black community thrived in the late '50s and early '60s. Many residents still have fond childhood memories of the project's early years.

But by the mid-60s, Pruitt-Igoe had become run-down and filthy. The city simply didn't have the money to maintain the projects.

Overflowing trash incinerators would break and never get fixed.

Broken windows were left in shards.

And vandalism and crime rates started to rise. The housing authority eventually installed vandal-proof light-fixtures, because kids broke them so often.

Rents rose as maintenance costs skyrocketed, and residents began to move out because they could pay less for private housing.

The police wouldn't come if you called in a crime and said you lived in Pruitt-Igoe. Newspapers started comparing the project to Watts, the black Los Angeles neighbourhood where a massive riot broke out in 1965.

There was even a group of men from the welfare department who would patrol Pruitt-Igoe at night, searching for fathers and arresting them if they were found. Sometimes men would come home at night to be with their families and be discovered, hiding in closets.

By February 1969, the city had raised rents three times in one year, and residents were strapped. They started a rent strike, refusing to pay until their demands for lower rents and better maintenance were met.

The city gave in to the tenants' demands in November 1969, but two months later, a sewer line broke in one of the buildings and flooded everything. Raw sewage spilled into people's homes and across the lawns of the projects.

It was January 1970, and so cold outside that the project's 10,000 broken windows began to freeze from the flooding.

Drug addicts and criminals began to move into the abandoned buildings, and children started hearing gun shots on the way to school.

The project was declining so rapidly that in 1972, the city decided to implode three of Pruitt-Igoe's buildings with dynamite.

The first demolition was nationally televised, and the images became iconic. They were a reflection of the failures of public housing in every major city.

Two years later, the city demolished the rest of the project's buildings. Once again, 55 acres were vacant in northern St. Louis.

Now see how another country is building public housing.

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