Detailing the birth, life and death of America’s first major urban housing project in St. Louis, Chad Freidrichs’ “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” combines concise but thoroughgoing sociological-historical analysis and elegant cinematic resources in service of an uncommonly artful example of film journalism. Designed to counter certain untruths that arose from the widely publicized detonation of the Pruitt-Igoe project, pic digs into the heart of the country’s postwar city-to-suburb development. A superb fest item, “Myth” should pique the interest of docu-specialist distribs.
With Jason Henry’s sober, beautifully matched narration as its guide, Freidrichs’ film begins unexpectedly with what appears to be a sojourn through a forest. In fact, the woods are the growth on the huge, vacant lot left by the 1974 demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, officially named the Wendell O. Pruitt and William L. Igoe Homes built for low-income residents. The haunting intro is a tipoff that this won’t be your usual political tract or an overly academic exercise.
In its quest to find the true causes of the project’s failure, Freidrichs and co-writer Jaime Freidrichs (the helmer’s wife) are keen to disabuse the viewer of the notion that urban housing projects, such as this one and Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green, are universally failed attempts at social engineering and thus proof of the failure of national welfare programs. As such, the film reps a powerful counterargument to the political right’s generally blanket dismissal of such projects; indeed, the widely broadcast film of Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition became a visual tool for critics of government programs in the 1970s in advance of Reagan-era welfare cuts.
Among the myths debunked are the notion that the buildings, designed by modernist Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki, were made to fail. Urban historian Robert Fishman underlines the fact that Southern blacks migrating to northern cities in the early 20th century were faced with shoddy housing; the 1949 Housing Act used eminent domain to raze many of these monstrosities, with the plan to replace them with modern, clean apartment blocks.
Chad Freidrichs’ masterstroke is to include emotionally powerful interviews with former Pruitt-Igoe residents, who knock down another myth: that the place was crappy from the start. In fact, the older residents, who moved in when the doors opened in 1954, recall something close to paradise — a “poor man’s penthouse.” Families enjoyed each other, kids played everywhere and safely, and the city maintenance was excellent.
This latter element comes in for strong critique here, since the local housing authority, supposedly starved of funding, began to cut back after the early golden years. With thousands living in the massive complex of apartment blocks and a skeletal maintenance staff, Pruitt-Igoe began to visibly deteriorate by the mid-1960s. The images of trash, sewer leaks and general decay is a shocking sight to behold in Brian Woodman’s phenomenal archival work.
Perhaps the most crucial factor in the decline of Pruitt-Igoe and similar projects were urban policies, spurred in part by the Housing Act, which paved the way for massive suburban projects, allowing whites to flee what they perceived as increasingly dangerous city centers. The helmer has uncovered fascinating footage documenting this flight, including shots of St. Louis suburbanites openly declaring their neighborhoods “white-only.” St. Louis proper declined in population by more than 60% in ensuing decades, further eroding its revenue base and creating a vicious cycle of poverty. And as the film pointedly notes, rather than encouraging integration, city and state policies doubled down on racially segregated neighborhoods.
This city tragedy ends on an unsettling, open-ended note, suggesting St. Louis is on the cusp of change that will result in either possible urban renewal or another disappointment. Editing is gloriously musical at times, cut in perfect tempo to Benjamin Balcom’s resonantly moody score; the effect is a film that ironically, given its subject, recalls the “City Symphony” films of the silent era. Even the talking heads are cinematic, filmed strikingly against a bold white backdrop.