Books and Culture

Howard Husock
The Myths of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
A new film laments the housing project’s failure for mostly the wrong reasons.
17 February 2012

Progressives have long sought a revisionist history of Pruitt-Igoe, the 32-building public housing complex in St. Louis famously demolished in 1972. An historian interviewed in Chad Freidrichs’s new documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, describes the stakes well: “We don’t want people to think of Pruitt-Igoe as a failure if they’re going to then translate that failure to all public housing or all government programs or all social welfare or all modernism. That’s what Pruitt-Igoe has been freighted with.” Indeed it has: the startling image of the Minoro Yamasaki-designed complex collapsing into dust and rubble—eerily foreshadowing the collapse of the World Trade Center, which Yamasaki also designed—became a symbol of liberal reformers’ shortcomings: their skepticism about the virtues of the private economy and their excessive faith in the abilities of technical experts and of government to serve not just as protector, but provider.

Freidrichs sets out to correct the record as he sees it. The film argues that the dysfunctions that prompted the Pruitt-Igoe demolition were not inevitable—that crime, violence, and vandalism were products of a negligent maintenance regime, poor financing, and poor design, as well as what New School urban studies professor Joseph Heathcott, an interviewee, characterizes as the use of public housing as a means of “planned segregation.” Freidrichs’s film is a well-crafted mix of retrospective interviews of residents and archival footage from local news sources that must have been hard to obtain, and which effectively bring to life the project’s early promise and its later crime, tension, and degradation. Freidrichs powerfully documents the perverse effects of public-welfare policy on families and, especially, the impact of poor building-maintenance practices on living conditions.

But Freidrichs’s film more broadly perpetuates its own Pruitt-Igoe myths, which continue to shape housing policy today. The first is a variation of the progressive belief that “real socialism was never tried”—that is, the failure of Pruitt-Igoe and public housing generally was not a fault of concept, but of implementation. Freidrichs overlooks what are likely essential features—not isolated failures—of public ownership. It shouldn’t surprise us, for instance, that a huge, publicly owned apartment complex like Pruitt-Igoe was poorly maintained. The lack of the incentive that comes with individual ownership made such a result unavoidable in housing projects around the country. By 1991, a federal report found that some 86,000 public-housing units nationwide were in such bad condition as to be deemed “severely distressed”—making them candidates for demolition.

Nor was poor maintenance the result of deliberate under-funding, as the film suggests. As originally conceived by housing reformers, who believed they had devised a superior alternative to private housing, public housing would be built through low-cost government financing but maintained through the rental income realized from its working-class households. The problem was that the original assumptions proved wrong. Given options, the lower-middle class moved elsewhere, leaving only the very poor—and high levels of vacancies—behind. When housing authorities in the late 1960s, just prior to the Pruitt-Igoe demolition, sought to raise rents to obtain the maintenance funds they needed, Congress passed the Brooke Amendment to the National Housing Act. Named for Massachusetts senator Edward Brooke, the first black senator since Reconstruction, the law set out to protect tenants from rent increases by limiting rents to 30 percent of income. The effect was to starve housing authorities of funds, leading directly to the “severe distress” of so much public housing.

Even more important, the film uncritically accepts the leading myth of housing reform: that the “slum” neighborhoods public housing replaced were cesspools of exploitation, and that such conditions were an inevitable feature of urban life, absent public alternatives. The film’s key advocate of this view is University of Michigan historian Robert Fishman:

You really had these people called slum lords who took advantage of the fact that the poor had to live in the center of cities close to where their jobs were. You had acres and acres of housing that was unsafe and unsanitary. . . . The slum lords knew that they could just jam as many people as possible into it. It was a very profitable system, but it was also completely destructive, not just for the people who were stuck in the slums, but for the whole urban community. And there was a despair that private enterprise could ever deal with this issue.

But Fishman’s conclusions are shaky at best. The true “myth of Pruitt-Igoe” is the idea that housing conditions were so deplorable that mass demolition and relocation were good ideas.

Consider the federal Census Bureau’s data from its “selected population and housing characteristics” report on St. Louis in 1950, five years before the construction of the Pruitt portion of the project and six years before Igoe. The so-called “census of housing” is a treasure trove of data about who lived in what sorts of dwelling units. St. Louis in 1950 was a city of 856,796 people—702,348 white and 154,448 nonwhite (all but 693 of whom were classified as “Negro”). It was not a wealthy city. Median income stood at $2,718 annually, or about $25,000 in 2011 dollars. In comparing predominantly black neighborhoods with white neighborhoods or the citywide averages, however, one does not find the profound degradation or racial differences that the “slumlord” tale implies.

An examination of two nearly all-black neighborhoods disproves the claim that absentee slumlords controlled all the real estate and bilked tenants who had no choice of where to live because of racial segregation. For instance, in what I’ll call Northside A (St. Louis Census tract 11-A, 98 percent black), 21 percent of all housing units (828 of 3696) was the property of “nonwhite owners.” (Moreover, at least a quarter of the units had a live-in owner on the premises. And “owner-presence” may well have been higher: the Census notes that, though there were just 721 single-family units, there were 828 owner-occupied units—meaning that at least 107 owners could be found in two-family through five-family buildings. I’m being conservative in assuming that owner-occupants lived in no buildings larger than a two-family.)

The numbers were slightly lower but not dissimilar in Northside B (Census tract 21-B, 96 percent black): at least 23 percent of all dwelling units had an owner present and almost all (460 of 480 owner-occupants) were black. The numbers for both neighborhoods are below the citywide average—34 percent owner-occupants and 41 percent of structures with an owner present—but not wildly so. Notably, in the case of Northside A, the percentage of owner-occupants (21 percent) exceeds that of an adjacent, predominantly white neighborhood (18 percent).

Rather than “slumlords” running a “very profitable system,” one finds that rents in Northside A ($27.71 per month) were lower than the citywide median ($28.55) and lower than that in one adjoining, predominantly white neighborhood ($33). Rents were lower than the citywide median in Northside B as well ($21.85 per month), though higher than a nearby white neighborhood ($17.53). What were residents getting for their money, though? In 1950, 28 percent of all the dwelling units in St. Louis, citywide, had either “no private bath” or were deemed “dilapidated.” In Northside A, that figure was 30 percent. It was much higher in Northside B (56 percent), which was closer to that in an adjoining, overwhelmingly white neighborhood (44 percent). There were poor sides of town in the St. Louis of 1950, in other words, both white and black.

One could argue that such numbers demonstrated the need for racially integrated public housing on a large, Pruitt-Igoe-type scale. But that argument would rest on faulty assumptions: that such physical conditions should be the main gauge of the health of a community; that left to themselves, such conditions would be a permanent feature of urban life,; and that the only steps that could make life better were demolition and relocation.

Further, these assumptions clashed sharply with the views of those who began to examine “urban renewal” as early as the late 1950s and early 1960s, including the sociologist Herbert Gans, no political conservative. In his landmark 1962 book, The Urban Villagers—an appreciation for Boston’s tenement West End district, based on research he conducted shortly before its demolition to make way for high-rise apartments—Gans wrote: “The federal and local housing standards which are applied to slum areas reflect the value pattern of middle-class professionals [who] place greater emphasis on the status functions of housing than does the working class.” Gans was not unalterably opposed to slum demolition and its replacement with publicly provided housing, but he was the first to express skepticism about just how bad areas branded as slums really were. “Existing physical standards,” he wrote in Urban Villagers, “have so far failed to make a distinction between low-rent and slum housing. . . . Slums should be eliminated but low-rent structures must be maintained, at least in the absence of better housing for people who want, or for economic reasons must maintain, low rental payments and who are willing to accept high density, lack of modernity and other inconveniences as alternative costs.”

Gans’s observations are echoed in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth by the black sociologist Joyce Ladner, who observed the project as a young academic. Ladner notes the similarity of the Pruitt-Igoe population to that with which she had grown up in Mississipi, “except for one thing: the strong, tightly-knit communities and families in which I’d grown up had begun to shatter around the people who were displaced in a northern city with few supports.” The virtues of community in Mississippi, in other words, may have outweighed the fact that many families lived in shacks. And what were the views of black residents of St. Louis about the areas cleared to make way for Pruitt-Igoe, anyway? The film doesn’t bother to ask this fundamental question.

But even by middle-class standards, the assumptions behind Pruitt-Igoe overlook a great many things, above all the likelihood of gradual movement up and out of poorer neighborhoods. The progressive view suffers from the snapshot fallacy: that the conditions observed at a given moment are permanent unless policymakers act. But the conditions for improvement were not absent in the poor black neighborhoods of 1950 St. Louis.

Home values in Northside A, for single-family units, were relatively similar to the citywide average ($8,026, compared with $9,220), suggesting the possibility of upward mobility for owners and sales to tenants, who might follow the owners up the housing ladder. And nearly 25 percent of St. Louis blacks (37,500 of 153,766) lived in majority-white neighborhoods of what was, in its social and racial mores, very much a Southern city, at a time when Jim Crow remained firmly in place in the United States. Private housing markets can disperse households based on their income and ability to pay, and they were starting to do so in the St. Louis of 1950. Rather than allow that process to take its course, the government helped create a huge black ghetto at Pruitt-Igoe and froze it in place for decades. Residents couldn’t become property owners and, with rents set low, lacked financial incentive to get out. Those providing private, low-income housing (including many black property owners) found it difficult or impossible to compete against the government.

The film rightly spotlights the collateral damage government benevolence caused to black family life. The project’s resident-admission policy favored single-parent over two-parent families. Former residents speak, movingly, about fathers leaving families so they might qualify for public housing or of denying to officials that their father was living with them. What appears to be an inexplicable and counterproductive policy is exactly what happens when one looks to government to organize things. In crafting Aid for Dependent Children (the public-assistance program of the era), policymakers believed they were giving priority to households of the greatest need—never considering that this might encourage families to become needier.

Public housing today, even in the post-welfare-reform era, continues to give priority to those of lowest income, which, as a practical matter, means female-headed, single-parent families, who still dominate the projects and the Section 8 housing-voucher program. Census data from the 1950s makes it possible to compare marriage rates in white and black St. Louis neighborhoods. The numbers show that black marriage rates have long lagged behind white rates. In nine predominantly black census tracts, married persons (husbands and wives, not including children) constituted 16.4 percent of the population. In predominantly white census tracts, the number was 24.5 percent—half again higher, before the advent of public housing. Without question, the perverse incentives of public housing and public assistance worsened this situation. In contrast, the incentives created by the private housing market—to maintain two-parent households so as to pool incomes in order to get ahead—would have worked in just the opposite direction. So it is that the filmmaker’s faith in government overlooks the social virtues that private markets can nurture.

Should government have turned a blind eye to the conditions in Northside A and B? Not necessarily. Housing-code enforcement to ensure basic sanitation, for instance, could have ameliorated the worst of conditions without greatly increasing rents (so long as mandated improvements were not on too grand a scale). Public baths—which helped ease sanitary problems in New York’s nineteenth-century tenement districts—would have ensured cleanliness without wiping out communities. These sorts of modest expedients are common today in Mumbai’s slums, where the World Bank has lent support to privately owned pay toilets. Such appropriate modesty on the part of government would certainly have been preferable to Yamasaki’s hubris. He and other modernist architects suffered no self-doubt in their belief that they could design a human environment superior to that shaped by the plans of untold thousands of people seeking to control their own destiny. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is particularly poignant in interviews with former residents who recall, as children, preferring to play in nearby vacant fields—and observe the insects—over the planned courtyards and playgrounds of the “towers in the park” built in the style of Le Corbusier.

The sociologist Nathan Glazer, who, as a federal official, played a role in the decision to demolish Pruitt-Igoe, recalls the flaws in its design. Says Glazer: “I was involved in a Health, Education and Welfare and Housing and Home Finance Agency task force on saving Pruitt-Igoe, 1961-62, when it was already 25 percent empty. We visited, and I recall asking the manager if there was anything in the design that contributed to its decline. He said: ‘Too many entrances and exits, permitting the miscreants to escape the police more easily!’”

The myth at the heart of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is that, if only such flaws had been anticipated, if only maintenance had been better, if only admission policies had been more stringent, the project would have worked. A closer look makes clear that, by arriving in northern cities during the heyday of government-led housing policy, blacks were robbed of the opportunity to advance through their own efforts, to build assets, and to forge communities. They—and Americans generally—continue to pay a steep price for ill-conceived projects such as Pruitt-Igoe.

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