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“The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” and the death knell of public housing

by Blake Warenik, National Housing Conference and Center for Housing Policy

In the mid-20th century, two housing projects were built: one in New York City, one in St. Louis. Both held the shape of the American dream for their residents and for those who presciently saw that America’s future lay in its cities. Nearly the same in form, both developments were considered triumphs of modern architecture and urban design in their day. But today, only one development one still stands. The other is a symbol of the darkest days of the public housing experiment. What was the difference?

A new documentary, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” contrasts the history of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe community, one of the most infamous American housing projects, to the story of Penn South, a contemporary community that still thrives today. When Pruitt-Igoe opened to fanfare in 1954, residents, many of whom formerly lived in crumbling slums, gushed over gleaming towers, lush lawns and modern amenities. Communities and families thrived in the corridors and in the parks among the buildings.

But before the next decade was out, the community was literally on fire: drug dealers and gangsters had taken over, the once-pristine exterior was charred and pocked with bullet holes and families lived in fear. It was demolished in 1974, less that 20 years after its hopeful completion. Many have used the Pruitt-Igoe experience as a cautionary tale on the consequences of dedicated low-cost housing. However, the documentary points out that using Pruitt-Igoe as a final answer on public housing ignores not only the successes of similar communities but also the real reasons for Pruitt’s demise.

A New York Times review of the documentary explores Pruitt-Igoe’s role in the debate on housing and claims by cultural critics and housing authorities that the architecture or the residents themselves were to blame for the community’s hellish collapse. In fact, the very 1949 Housing Act that built communities like Pruitt-Igoe financed the urban flight of the latter half of the 20th century that decimated urban job markets. Changing demographics and the collapse of manufacturing economies in cities like St. Louis killed budding urban communities on the vine. But that was just the beginning the tragedy.

The documentary reveals that housing authorities themselves made disastrous decisions that ultimately damned the community. Authorities didn’t set aside enough money for maintenance when public housing opponents blocked funding. Perhaps most shocking was the revelation that night patrols stalked the halls of Pruitt-Igoe evicting fathers of resident families, enforcing “unfathomable welfare rules stipulating that no able-bodied man could live in a home where the woman received government aid.”

Meanwhile, the Penn South co-operative community, similar both in architecture and that it was built for low-income residents, still thrives today in Manhattan near the exclusive Chelsea neighborhood. So many of the original residents have remained that the community has been designated a “naturally occurring retirement community,” as the residents age in place. The “towers in the park” design, inaccurately faulted for contributing to the conditions at Pruitt-Igoe, provides Penn South residents with a safe place to walk and socialize and an island of green in the city.

When President Kennedy dedicated Penn South in 1962, he spoke of what labor could accomplish in America. The community was sponsored by International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and built by organized labor to house working families in New York. Today, NHC member AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust is investing $134 million in affordable housing, which will preserve affordability at Penn South for another 20 years and create more than 600 union construction jobs. Another NHC member, Fannie Mae, worked with AFL-CIO HIT to provide financing. See the video below for more.

So what do the twin experiences of Penn South and Pruitt-Igoe show us about housing? For every Pruitt-Igoe, good policy could have instead made low-cost housing that lasts.

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