Disasters Class: Assignment 2

After watching the Pruitt Igoe Myth documentary, directed by Chad Friedrichs (a professor of film at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri) answer the following in a blog comment of no more than 3 paragraphs:

The documentary explodes the myth that Pruitt and Igoe failed because of modernist architecture or the people who lived there. It does this by showing us the “bigger story” that has been boiled down–or disregarded– to create these reductive myths.

What was one element that you found surprising about this “bigger story” and how might it help us understand the perils of urban development more broadly? Use examples from previous class units that deal with the history of urban development in your answer and focus on systems. In addition to having a clear argument that teaches us something new and interesting about urbanization, try to show change over time in your answer.

For more information about what the film covered, see the official website.

Due by 10 pm (not 10 am as it says on your syllabus) on Oct. 4. No credit given for comments submitted late.


  1. Burchell

    The failure of the Puitt-Igoe housing projects was, despite popular belief surrounding the incident, a complex interplay of social and economic forces that drove the once idyllic structures into disaster. Blame is commonly assigned to the architecture of the building and/or the irresponsibility of its residents, though these views require an ignorance of the socio-economic context of the project. Pruitt-Igoe was completed in 1954 in St. Louis, Missouri on the cusp of what many city developers believed to be a post-war residency and employment boom. The project was also designed to eliminate dilapidated and dangerous slums and bring even the lower classes into the clean, shiny future St. Louis hoped to achieve. What was not taken into account during the construction of Pruitt-Igoe was that a national glorification of suburban development was underway. The encouragement of middle class relocation to outside city limits drastically shifted the balance of socioeconomic status in St. Louis. With both populous and employment shifting away from the city, in addition to the segregating effects of the low-income housing, residents of Pruitt-Igoe and other areas of St. Louis were left further impoverished and abandoned. The socio-economic forces in this situation drove the Pruitt-Igoe conditions worse and worse, until epidemics of violence and disrepair led to the demolition of the housing. The main forces driving Pruitt-Igoe’s failure were not a simple matter of architecture or residents, but a result of a host of complex issues faced by St. Louis (and other cities) as a whole.

    One of the most interesting elements of Pruitt-Igoe’s descent into infamy was how the forces driving the failure played off one another, and further increased the severity of the issues plaguing the housing project. The suburban migration of the middle class from St. Louis led to a decrease in employment opportunities in the city. With more low-income families in St. Louis, more people were forced into low-income housing and kept away still from employment opportunities. As the population of Pruitt-Igoe expanded and conditions worsened, racial tensions were driven even more tenuous and caused racially motivated unemployment to send more families into the low-income housing. These factors all continued to worsen over the course of Pruitt-Igoe’s fall; racial segregation became a powerful force in shaping public opinion and policy on the issue and served to worsen the economic opportunities for Pruitt-Igoe’s residents. The intense segregation and racism were, of course, never blamed for the decline of Pruitt-Igoe despite the massive effect they had.

    What we see in Pruitt-Igoe that we see behind every disaster in history is a lack of understanding for the complexity of the system. City planners and housing officials only saw the Pruitt-Igoe projects and their promise for better housing; they never turned around to observe what was happening in the city. Without an effort to look into how the population of the city was changing, they could not have adequately planned for the events that took place and led to the decline of Pruitt-Igoe. Anytime technology or society advances, there are a host of new dangers unclear to officials, as one cannot easily account for what has not been previously observed. In the cases of nuclear accidents, epidemics, and engineering failures we see the same results; anytime the envelope is pushed, we take great risks with factors often beyond our control. What changes through these experiences is how we approach the next problem. Over time, as we learn more and more factors that present dangers to these projects, we are better able to guard against these risks. Though we will always be at risk of the unknown, we also can continue to better anticipate unknowns. As society has progressed, we have begun thinking more and more about unknown risks and how they have affected development historically. Recorded history and even humanity overall has not been around for as long as some might believe, and development of our society is still a trek into a dangerous and unfamiliar landscape that we are slowly trying to understand.

  2. Vance Echavarria

    Pruitt-Igoe was a public housing program in St. Louis, it displaced many families to a new home, a home that was at first an improvement. Pruitt-Igoe was built by the government and maintained using rent from the tenants. It was largely a success at first, but the when the government took a step back the maintenance of Pruitt-Igoe declined, it became littered with garbage and was slowly falling apart. Crime began to rise in and near Pruitt-Igoe and the police soon became afraid to even enter, Pruitt-Igoe was neglected federal and then local government.
    The residents of Pruitt-Igoe had restrictions placed on them like no television, telephone, and their fathers were not allowed to live with them. These restrictions cost the families their chance of a stable household, children began to destroy parts of the building and crime developed outside of Pruitt-Igoe. Government needed to alleviate restrictions in order to create a stable environment for the families.
    St. Louis was in a decline while Pruitt-Igoe existed, it invested heavily in structures like Pruitt-Igoe based on thought that it was a growing city. St. Louis was being left by well-off families who were moving to suburbs while the projects were only inhabited by the poor. St. Louis needed the wealthy families to stay and with so many families leaving the conditions only worsened leaving to more families leaving.

  3. Kamari M. Patrick

    Government support of urban development is primarily economically driven. The Pruitt-Igoe public housing project displayed the familiar un-researched and hasty action of government systems and a common economic theme between the driving force for urbanization and the policies that governed the project’s management. However, with effective policies derived by the needs of the people, the monetary theme of progression can be mutually beneficial to the targeted community and the financial status of the authority, following this model Pruitt-Igoe would have been successful.

    Pruitt-Igoe was created to eliminate the slums; this statement would generally yield no argument that this meant the people currently living there would be brought out of poverty along with the physical structures they occupied. The government made this statement in a much broader context in which the people were not a focus at all, the elimination of the slums promoted an aesthetic goal with a larger economic benefit in mind. Government hastiness also meant that plans for Pruitt-Igoe only included funds for its construction, despite knowledge that the people living there would have no economic structure to maintain the operation of the housing projects. Additionally important topics including education and job creation were not a part of the plan. A new building does not build a new culture, if this were the case; the unsafe and unsanitary conditions of the slums would point only to location as the cause for said conditions.

    The policies created for the project’s occupants directly promoted the disintegration of family and racial segregation. Not allowing men to reside with their families that were receiving welfare, was not a policy created with the people in mind. In addition, the contradicting policies of the housing act of 1949 and the policies of Pruitt-Igoe did nothing to uplift the depressed culture of the slums it replaced, thus allowing for the penetration of violence, filth, and its subsequent demise. The creation of public housing is nothing more than a glorified relocation of the city’s poor inhabitants.

  4. Nick Ruggiero

    The most surprising element of the Pruitt-Igoe documentary was the part when a news anchor was interviewing the director of housing development of St. Louis. They were at the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in the midst of its decay. Vandalism and crime were seen through the grounds of the project. The anchor was questioning the director about the current state of the housing project. The government official was talking about the project like nothing was wrong and that everything was normal. He did not seem to be in a panic state and was very calm about the condition the project was in. For example, the anchor asked him about the trash piled up around the incinerator. He said that that was normal because the incinerator was a little small for the area and it was just backed up. He ignored the fact that the garbage had been sitting there for probably days and that it was not going anywhere else anytime soon.

    Once it became obvious to the public that everything at Pruitt-Igoe was not ok, the government was blaming the residents for the destruction of the projects that once stood as a symbol of hope for St. Louis. They were covering up the real problem, which was the current state of the St. Louis economy and the fact that the government was not maintaining any of the property at Pruitt-Igoe. They used the poor as a scapegoat, which is very common through history.

    Many of the problems with urban development often get blamed on the poor. Their living conditions are horrible and their resources are scarce. For example, in the outbreak of cholera in London in the 1850s the poor were blamed for the disease. This was because the proportion of infected poor people seemed greater that the wealthier people. The reason the number seemd greater was because there were at least triple the number of people in a singe household compared to the rich, so poor households had more sick people located in them. More people got exposed and infected if someone in that household got cholera. The difference in urban development between London in the 1800’s and Pruitt-Igoe is government regulation. The Government, in St. Louis, developed housing projects for the poor and restricted the number of residents per house. Even though they eventually failed, restrictions today on urban development are essential for change for the better.

  5. acutuli

    Pruitt-Igoe was constructed during a time of extreme racial segregation in the United States. The changes occurring in society during its time had a large influence on the demise of Pruitt-Igoe. Much blame was placed on the failure of modernist architecture, but the documentary shows that outside factors, namely the intentions of government organizations and racial and economic segregation, let to the failure of Pruitt-Igoe.

    In St. Louis, segregation was intentional up to 1954 when Brown v Board took place, but the influences of segregation continued to prevent “black deconcentration” from certain areas of the city, while the white population moved to the suburbs. This was supported by the government, which preserved white neighborhoods and planned urban renewal. Urban renewal was described by the documentary as “negro removal”. This shift of focus away from supporting public housing was a major factor in the decline of Pruitt-Igoe, as well as many other public housing projects throughout the country.

    It was also mentioned that the black areas of St. Louis were expensive but had poorer quality housing and services. The rapid demise of Pruitt-Igoe was largely a result of the simple fact that the buildings were not maintained. They were allowed to fall into disrepair into the 1960s as maintenance services and police/fire response stopped. This allowed crime to increase, and it worsened after the buildings became unlivable and had to be boarded up and the remaining tenants had to move out. From previous reading, the way the CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) handled Cabrini-Green led to its demise in a similar fashion as well, as the restrictive policies on its residents made it a difficult place to live and raise a family. Overall, the intentions of government to control racial and economic segregation, as well as controlling the condition of public housing projects led to the perils and failures of urban development.

  6. Vesela

    Pruitt and Igoe is an example of the failure of public housing. Created with an esthetic purpose, to replace slums, give a more modern and renovated look to the city and raise property value in the area, Pruit and Igoe did just the opposite. The massive apartment buildings turned into breeding grounds for crime, violence, vandalism, drug abuse and more, to such a magnitude that the only solution was to demolish the projects. The only thing Pruitt and Igoe seemed good at was increasing segregation and isolating the poor in a confined area.

    There were several major flaws that led to this disaster. The documentary focused on the wrong assumption for the population growth in the city, the lack of proper provision for maintenance of the projects in case there weren’t as many tenants as expected, as well as multiple other factors. However I believe the biggest flaw that led to the failure of Pruitt and Igoe was the created mismatch between desirable population density and available job opportunities in the area. The only way the buildings could be maintained was if there were enough tenants, and the only way to ensure enough tenants was to provide enough work opportunities. The financial pressure, the resulting lack of maintenance and control led to crime, and aggression. Unfortunately, as with many previous cases in history, the projects failure was blamed on the poor for being “that kind of people”.

    As the shortcoming of the project slowly unraveled and worsened, no one seemed to have a solution or even care since it only concerned the poor. Several small details surrounding Pruitt and Igoe, however, seem bizarre and not in conjunction with the initial intention of the projects. There seemed to be no explanation to why there was a rule against having a man of working age in the buildings, when obtaining rent was a reason for the curtailment of the maintenance of the buildings, or the fact that rents were higher in poorer neighborhoods.

    [Note- Recall that the rational for keeping men of working age out of the projects, and breaking up families in the process, was that the government did not want to “reward” an unemployed man of working age who was out of work by giving him a free place to live. But, as you saw in the film, these men wanted to work, but the jobs were drying up. So the punitive measure of driving them away from their families in the projects didn’t have the intended effect of forcing them to get a job (they couldn’t find jobs)–it only had negative effects on them and their families.]

  7. SarineH

    Fact: The Pruitt Igoe complex failed over a period of about 20 years.
    From a systemic perspective, this fact begs to find the root cause of the failure. At face value the public housing approach was to benefit the underprivileged by providing them housing in a group environment. This same demographic group also received provisions for their healthcare, food, and spending. This would seem a Utopian society where people receive assistance and can save, train, and work to become self-sufficient. These same individuals would then leave the system to make way for others in need and, through taxes on their earned income, provide the same opportunity to others.

    Many times there is a dark side to the ideals of urbanization and development. With the promises of endless, low cost energy come the realities of radiation exposure as was seen in the Windscale disaster, as well as dangers to public health as was seen in the London Fog of 1952. In the same way, the benefits of shared living space bring with them the realities of infection and illness. In the 1850s these types of cramped living spaces were partially to blame for the great cholera outbreak in Soho. In all these situations, history has demonstrated the dark side of apparently idyllic urbanization or social engineering: it is difficult to predetermine.

    The concept that the removal of personal responsibility or ownership can produce negative results is not so difficult to comprehend. [The residents at Pruitt Igoe did not have responsibility for their living environment, and when the government abdicated its role in maintaining the apartments, things went downhill quickly. Because residents were powerless to improve the project as a group, because they had no power or money to do so, they were stuck in a dystopian situation that originally was meant to be a utopia that provided for their every need.]

    My sources were the Documentary that we watched in class on Pruit Igoe and the articles we read regarding cholera, London Fog, and Windscale.

  8. Jason Blalock

    I think what surprised me the most was that such a simple thing as lack of maintenance could play such a large part in the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe. It’s not something that is necessarily thought about until it is actually needed. However looking at it now, in urbanization you bring a lot of people together into a city and pack them into a building that isn’t maintained and you’ll get a lot of very angry people.

    While they did take into account that maintenance was going to be needed and had a plan as to how they thought they would finance it, I think that a couple mistakes were made in their future planning. The first, similar to the political pride of Great Britain with Windscale that they were a huge country power that pushed them to make foolish mistakes, the city officials fully believed that their city was going to just boom after the end of the war. Based on this idea they fully expected to fill all of Pruitt-Igoe so that maintenance could be paid by rent. Instead they didn’t grow, and the housing act actually backfired and allowed those in lower-middle class to live elsewhere, leaving only the poor in Pruitt-Igoe. However this was also a trap I think, created by the banks who opposed the housing act, where they stipulated that no government funding could be used for maintenance. I believed that they may have realized that Pruitt could very easily run out of funds to maintain such a building and were banking on this fact to get rid of public housing.

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