Monday, July 9, 2012

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

It's rare I get to see one great real estate documentary a year, let alone two in one week.

The first I'd like to recommend to you is The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a stunning documentary on the infamous St. Louis public housing project that went from international celebrity to national disgrace over just ten short years.

I became aware of Pruitt-Igoe (pronounced PREW-IT EYE-GO) when I began exploring the career of famous Seattle architect Minoru Yamasaki.  Most known today for being the designer of the doomed World Trade Center in New York, Yamasaki is still fondly remembered today for a host of conceptual 1950s and 1960s era projects such as the Rainier Tower in Seattle with its distinctive "pencil point" base built in 1977.

Pruitt-Igoe was Yamasaki's second major project as an architect, ultimately becoming a personal disaster for him and a failure that shadowed the soon to be world famous designer for the rest of his life.

Built in 1954 with great fanfare, the massive 33-building public housing complex was designed on a 57-acre site in downtown St. Louis.  More than 2,870 apartments were built for mostly poor African Americans who had migrated north after the Second World War for the great jobs boom that never happened.

Pruitt-Igoe in its day was the best government could offer in public housing.  The apartments with their massive windows were called "Poor People's Penthouses in the Sky."  Some tenants actually had working kitchens with refrigerators for the first time.  The initial residents of Pruitt-Igoe loved the place because where they had come from was much worse.

But Pruitt-Igoe was maintained with the rents of the tenants and it became clear within a year few people actually wanted to live there.  The occupancy rate peaked at 91% in 1957---and quickly began to fall from there.

Fewer rents meant less maintenance.

Property deterioration led to fewer tenants, creating a vicious cycle.  Without maintenance everything began to fall apart and left to rot.

By 1971, only 600 people lived in the decaying and crime ridden complex.  Public areas between the buildings had become a "no-man's land" of gangs, drug dealing, and violence.  Snipers in vacant apartments protected the local drug trade from rivals and the police.

On March 16, 1972, the first Pruitt-Igoe building was imploded with great fanfare.  The pictures taken that day were soon famous around the world.

By 1976, the entire site was cleared and left vacant.  Today, much of the site is still that way.  All of the buildings in the photo above were destroyed except for the small church near the center.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth by director Chad Freidrichs is a documentary as good as they get.  The film tells a fascinating real estate story but, in the end, it's a human tragedy as well.


I watched the film through Netflix Streaming.  Local libraries also carry the film.  You can buy The Pruitt-Igoe Myth on Amazon too.


A reader sent me this link to YouTube with many amazing images of Pruitt-Igo.  Highly recommended.

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