Friday, October 12, 2012

DVD Review: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
Directed by: Chad Freidrichs.
Written by: Chad Freidrichs & Jaime Freidrichs.

The Pruitt-Igoe housing project was built in the 1950s in St. Louis – and was torn down about 20 years later. Because this was a public housing project, Pruitt-Igoe has long been held up as an example as to why this sort of public housing doesn’t work – and a way to demonize all public housing. But Pruitt-Igoe failed for many reasons – as one former resident in the documentary says there is plenty of blame to go around – so to demonize all public housing because of Pruitt-Igoe would be shortsighted and incorrect. This isn’t to say that the Federal government should provide public housing, but only that Pruitt-Igoe should not be a reason why they don’t.

When the Pruitt-Igoe projects were built in 1950s, the city assumed that the population would rise in the coming decades. These high rise apartments were meant to house 12,000 residents, and keep them close to the jobs in the city’s center – good manufacturing jobs among them. Instead what happened was just the opposite – the city’s population plummeted – it lost half its population in the 30 years between 1950 and 1980. Middle class, predominantly white, residents fled to the suburbs, and the jobs followed them. While the Federal government paid for construction of the Pruitt-Igoe buildings, they were supposed to pay for the upkeep out of the rent of the tenants – which never really happened because so many people were unemployed, and couldn’t find a job in St. Louis. The buildings fell quickly into disrepair, which led to the people who did have jobs living there finding someplace else to live, which only increased the problems. People ended up paying nearly 75% of their meager incomes to live in these buildings, which offered worse conditions than other places they could live. And wherever there was poverty, there is crime and vandalism – and soon the Pruitt-Igoe projects were just as bad or worse than the slums that they had replaced.

Chad Fredrichs The Pruitt-Igoe Myth offers a wealth of archival footage of the projects slow decline, as well as suburbia’s rather rapid growth. He finds some great footage of middle class white housewives living in suburbia who claim that they don’t think that the “Negros” should not be oppressed; they just don’t want them in their area. After all, they moved out of the city into the white enclave of suburbia to get away from them in the first place.  He also has some great interviews with some of the former residents of Pruitt-Igoe, whose memories recall the steady decline of the area – some have very fond memories of the place, some have some rather horrid memories.

The documentary is interesting, but I don’t think Fredrichs quite makes his point as strongly as he wants to – that the residents and the fact that Pruitt-Igoe was a public housing project were not to blame for its failings – and that it was more because of poor urban planning, poor maintenance, racism, a shifting economy and suburbia that led to its failures. They all played a role – and this documentary highlights that – but the residents, who Fredrichs never really criticizes in any direct way, played their own role as well. Fredrichs tries to get this across, I think, especially when interviewing one former resident, forever scarred by the murder of his brother in Pruitt-Igoe, but mostly he blames outside factors solely.

Still, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is a fascinating little documentary. It certainly breaks no new ground with the standard issue talking heads-archival footage format, but the story it tells is interesting – and necessary in many ways. True, I think Fredrichs could have, and should have, been harder on some of the residents who inhabited Pruitt-Igoe – the ones who actively destroyed it (blaming poor maintenance on not replacing broken windows or cleaning up vandalism, etc. ignores the fact that SOMEONE broke those windows, and vandalized the property). In a way though, Fredrichs doesn’t need to blame the residents – that is what everyone else has done for decades now. Fredrichs is showing the larger picture – the other factors that contributed to Pruitt-Igoe failings. And on that level it works - and may well remind viewers of some of the things said in politics today. Afterall, everyone who lived in Pruitt-Igoe would be part of that 47% of Americans Mitt Romney thinks are lazy moochers – and while some residents certainly share in the blame for Pruitt-Igoe’s failing, many were just hard working people trying to live their lives.

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