In the 1950’s, the Pruitt-Igoe housing project represented a new chapter in city life. The massive collection of buildings promised comfortable homes to lower class residents, but the its ideal manifestation was short-lived. Sixteen years after its erection in 1956, the city demolished Pruitt-Igoe, which had devolved into a disheveled environment marred by crime and filth. Today, it’s something of a graveyard, and a symbolic one at that: Chad Freidrichs’ profoundly tragic “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” compellingly tracks the dissolution of Pruitt-Igoe, using it as a powerful reference point in a broader discussion about the failure of public housing.
Built a mere seven years after the 1949 Housing Act, Pruitt-Igoe was established by the St. Louis housing authority “to rise above the polluted slums,” although it eventually became a part of them. As Freidrichs reveals through the testimonies of former residents and housing experts alike, this rise and fall presented a bonafide chicken-and-the-egg conundrum: Did the residents, mostly impoverished African Americans, contribute to the community’s failings? Or was it caused by governmental neglect? The answer exists in a failure to communicate, embodied by the startling image of a Pruitt-Igoe building in mid-collapse that was snapped during the final seconds of its existence.
Given the distance from the events at hand, Pruitt-Igoe avoids activist-style rabble-rousing, instead adopting a mournful tone. Freidrichs avoids presenting a dry breakdown of public housing’s missed opportunities (although a few requisite academics offer necessary context to the socio-economic events in question). Mainly, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” collects the testimonies of former residents, as they unleash nostalgia for the early, halcyon days when living in the complex felt like progress. “I don’t think the bad things outweighed the good,” says one subject, although recollections of the bad repeatedly challenge that presumption.
Horror stories include being trapped in poorly designed elevators and evading heaps of burning trash piles in building lobbies, events that give the impression of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Having established those problems with an effective montage of archival footage and frighteningly vivid anecdotes, Freidrichs evaluates the flaw behind it all. While the government paid for the buildings, maintenance fees came from the rent, which most residents couldn’t afford. Banks and realtors grew increasingly uncomfortable with public housing as a logical investment. Greed won out; even worse, so did racism. Freidrichs recounts the sorrow saga of Black Jack, Missouri, a white town that intentionally set out ot proven public housing to avoid the arrival of “trash people.” Opportunities for employment migrated to white suburban communities, furthering the downward spiral.
A futile rent strike fell on deaf ears.”We were really left at the mercy of the system,” recalls a former resident; worse, the system blamed them for it, and has yet to do penance for its sins. Which is not to say that the director calls for justice. Instead, he simply lets the dark tale run its course. The eventual implosion of Pruitt-Igoe became “a very painful moment of truth,” as one scholar explains, in which a dream was dismantled in harsh physical terms. Freidrichs effectively builds it back. The collage of memories that might not make a difference now, but at least they set the story straight.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having received strongly positive reactions at Full Frame and the Los Angeles Film Festival, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” will soon screen at Silverdocs, where it should continue to garner acclaim. Given the non-commercial topic, its distribution prospects are fairly slim, but it should be able to land a decent TV deal.
criticWIRE grade: A