Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth at the Siskel

Posted By on 08.04.11 at 08:59 AM

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On Sunday and again next Thursday, the Gene Siskel Film Center screens The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History, a new documentary about an ill-considered St. Louis housing project—demolished in 1972, it lasted for all of 18 years. Fred Camper, who reviewed the film for the Reader, says it's affecting: "The opening, which shows the mix of forest and rubble where the homes once stood, is especially poetic, its empty spaces later filled in for the viewer with archival footage of the project, lovely initially but gutted in its later years."

On his blog, Lynn Becker provides some history of the project; as in Chicago, he writes, public housing in St. Louis followed a familiar path of social disintegration:

When cheap suburban land and the expressways opened up the floodgates for white flight, the projects re-segregated with a vengeance.

The tabula rasa approach detached the projects from any sense of historic continuity with the city around them. The massive scale and homogeneity of Pruitt-Igoe's design, 57 acres and 33 11-story buildings, made it difficult for a resident to find anything to cling to. The buildings were all the same, one after another, a gulag of warehouses where residents became human widgets, stuffed side by side into identical cells, whether they were a family struggling to build a future, or those already lost to drugs, gangs and crime, rotting the buildings to get through a single additional day.

At the beginning, residents made the projects a real neighborhood, proudly festooning their units with Christmas lights. Now, as in Chicago projects like Cabrini-Green, as the districts re-gentrify, all evidence that they had ever existed has been clinically removed.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History screens Sun 8/7, 5:15 PM, and Thu 8/11, 6:15 PM, at the Siskel Film Center.

Architectural bonus: I happened to stumble across this 1994 article by Cate Plys, in which various Chicago architects talk about which buildings they'd most like to blow up (the pre-9/11 era—such innocence!). One mentioned the Reader building, which was constructed in 1911: "'I used to want to blow up any new building on Michigan Avenue, but maybe we'll have to wait on that because they just keep getting worse,' mused Ben Weese of Weese Langley Weese Architects Ltd. when first contacted. But a follow-up call found him a trifle unfriendly: 'I'm not too sanguine on the subject, to tell you the truth. Why don't you blow up the Reader building? Really, there's a lot of problems out there. This isn't a subject I can take part in happily.'"

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