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The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

March 31, 2011

I saw this trailer the other day, and can’t wait for the film to come out. I had read about this St. Louis housing complex—designed by Minoru Yamasaki, a Japanese architect who went on to design Manhattan’s World Trade Center—on Wikipedia a while back. In the case of Pruitt-Igoe, the Public Housing Authority’s tight budget limited Yamasaki to shoddy building materials. The PHA also capped the heights of each building at 11 stories.

An artist's rendering of a Pruitt-Igoe common room

The result (as the images in the trailer show) was a community that quickly crumbled into a state of horrific disrepair.

Whenever I take the bus into New York City, my favorite part of the drive is when we reach the outskirts, and there are just these massive buildings—one after the other—that stretch on for miles. I’m both awestruck and disturbed; they represent something terribly poignant and nostalgic, and I find myself trying to reconcile what life must have been (or is) like in these places. Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here does an excellent job showing the desolation and despair of Chicago’s high-rise projects through the eyes of two boys growing up in the Henry Horner Homes. (When Kotlowitz asks one of the boys what he wants to be when he grows up, he responds, “If I grow up, I want to be a bus driver.” Not “when I grow up,” but if)

A few years back, I wrote about Cambridge’s Ringe Towers, which have always fascinated me.

The housing projects loom over me: three tall, brick buildings, out of place among this community, which is pretty well off overall. But held within the brick walls of each gargantuan building is a community teeming with life. Each tiny little window holds a different person or family; some still have Christmas lights in them, others have posters or flags—Cuban, Dominican, United States.

When I look up at these buildings from the train tracks, they’re set up starkly against the grimy sky, which is black and grizzly. Their stance—amidst weaving traffic, flashing streetlights, and people walking home, bundled up from the cold—is so solitary, so rigid, that it kind of stifles my breath, and I really can’t look for too long, or else my chest sinks into this confusing soupy mess of wallowing self-pity and supreme joy. As minutes pass, lights in the apartments flicker on and off, and the moon emerges from the black clouds, which tumble across the sky. Some stars flash, the biting wind picks up, and it’s like I can see the bricks harden—this cool, red mortar, set deep into poured concrete. They’re stacked, one on top of the other—thousands of them—until: those bright, red lights. On each building is an antenna, which blinks every few seconds, a pulsating red BLIP, so planes don’t crash into the buildings.

I’ve always wanted to stand on these towers, next to these antennas, and take everything in: to my right, the flickering lights of the Boston skyline, and to my left, Route 2, which disappears into the rolling, tree-filled hills of Lexington and Concord.

The height, the power: man made this, man inhabits this, man conquers all. I’ve grown up with these buildings, and though I’ve never actually gone inside they’ve always been there: a permanence and presence that is comforting and reassuring.

The construction of institutionalized ghettos certainly represents a bygone era of urban planning. Boston never took this route in the first place, but Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green Projects, which both experienced decline similar to Pruitt-Igoe’s, have been demolished in recent years.

As Dennis Lehane often does in his novels—how do we capture (or memorialize) a way of life that is disappearing before our eyes?

This documentary, I hope, will add to the dialogue.


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