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movie review

‘Pruitt-Igoe Myth’ asks: Did what went up have to come down?

The buildings at Pruitt-Igoe being imploded in a scene from “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.”

state historical society of missouri/first run features

The buildings at Pruitt-Igoe being imploded in a scene from “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.”

Pruitt-Igoe was the name of a massive public-housing project in St. Louis that’s become a byword for urban planning failure. How massive? The development’s 33 buildings took up 57 acres on the city’s north side and at one point had as many as 12,000 residents. The chief architect on the project was Minoru Yamasaki, who was later responsible for the World Trade Center, in lower Manhattan.

How much of a failure? At the time that the project’s demolition began, only 2,500 people still lived there. Living conditions had gotten that bad. The array of news footage, vintage film clips, still photos, and newspaper clippings that writer-director Chad Freidrichs has gathered makes plain just how bad, as do the interviews he’s conducted with a half-dozen former residents and a trio of academics.

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Footage of the first buildings being imploded, in 1972, appeared on network newscasts and became a staple of stories about urban decay. The images remain shocking 40 years later. In a cruel twist, the Gateway Arch was near Pruitt-Igoe and can be seen in many views of the project. Even more shocking may be the fact that the project had opened to residents just 20 years before it was torn down.

So that’s the “Pruitt-Igoe” part of the documentary’s title. Where does “myth” come in? Presumably, it refers to the inevitability of the project’s failure. Yet the very things Freidrichs brings in as context (and indictment) — racism, suburbanization, inadequate funding for the project, the loss of urban manufacturing jobs — make plain what a burden the project suffered under. Add in the Modernist design commandment that high-density tower blocks in low-density settings were the best way to house people, and you had a prescription for disaster.

Pruitt-Igoe was the first, and most famous, example of the failure of that sort of public housing. But it was by no means alone. The since-demolished Cabrini-Green project in Chicago became, if anything, more notorious. And that’s not taking into account a factor specific to St. Louis. The city saw its population decline by 50 percent — that’s right, 50 percent — between 1950 and 1980, a more severe decline than almost any other US city. Shrinking cities have numerous needs. Housing, let alone the wrong sort of housing, is not one of them. Under a different set of circumstances — in a different society — the development might have flourished. But “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” is a documentary, not fantasy.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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