Monday, April 16, 2018

Pruitt-Igoe Revisited, Part 2

I always find it surprising that all sorts of people can talk so easily about the "failures" of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis without much knowledge of the development at all.
Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Wikimedia Commons
They usually repeat a conventional story, which I discussed in my previous post: in the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe had been built with great acclaim and awards, and then quickly descended into chaos, crime, and violence due to housing people (especially low-income people) in multi-story modernist buildings, the lack of private property and "defensible space" in public housing, the concentration of low-income residents living separately from more wealthy people, the concentration of African Americans living separately from whites, the arrogance of early urban planners (the false opposition of Robert Moses vs. Jane Jacobs), the chaos and disaster somehow inherent in public housing or somehow associated with African Americans or low-income people, and so on. This narrative assumes that public housing will always fail, the residents must be freed from the space (even though they were always free to move elsewhere, but likely had other constraints to doing so), and the development must be replaced with a private alternative. The ease of knowing and understanding this narrative suggests to me that it is a fundamental American story or myth about cities, known perhaps subconsciously. Who subscribes to this myth? middle-class people? white professionals? gentrifiers? In its certainty and its lack of interest in other perspectives, it resembles the perspective of colonial rulers. Colonial rulers project the inversion of their self-perception onto others -- colonial rulers see themselves as orderly and productive and the ruled as chaotic, criminal, and lazy -- which justifies colonial rule and displacement.

Let’s look more closely at the narrative about Pruitt-Igoe and the reality. First, in contrast to the conventional story mentioned above, Pruitt-Igoe public housing as it was designed or constructed did not win any awards.(1) Most references to professional architectural acclaim cite a 1951 article in Architectural Forum, a Time Inc. publication for the building industry.(2) The article is positive, but mostly about the cost savings and about the “refreshing” park land on the site. The article states that Pruitt-Igoe “might well set a new rescue pattern” for other cities filled with slums.(2) As Meehan (1979), Bristol (1991), and others have documented, the budget of the already cost-saving design was, in fact, cut dramatically, leaving the buildings without landscaping and the "refreshing" park land when opened in 1954.(7) Pruitt-Igoe was not award winning, but was understood, at least by the building industry, as low-cost housing.

Second, the St. Louis business community supported the building of Pruitt-Igoe as a strategy to encourage investment in declining St. Louis.(3) Public housing construction as a development strategy was also practiced in other cities, including on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. According to Chris Bacon (1985), large-scale manufacturing in St. Louis, especially Anheuser-Busch, had suffered losses in market share in the 1930s and 1940s and sought to expand production with the help of new transportation routes and other public infrastructure.(4) At this time, the building industries also suffered from the weakening economy. Not a single major office building had been built in St. Louis between 1930 and at least 1958.(4) Because St. Louis received federal funds from the 1949 Housing Act, public housing construction was the only major building activity in St. Louis.(5) The city government supported expansion of industrial production through urban renewal, destroying slums and displacing people away from sites for new freeways, new production, and new middle-class housing. The Pruitt-Igoe’s site was “the cheapest such parcel in St. Louis,” but it “will probably have grown to be the best.”(2) On this inexpensive land, the Pruitt-Igoe buildings doubled the density in the area, thus concentrating low-income residents and making available the land of former slums for expansion of industrial production and new infrastructure development. Thus, the city government and business leaders understood Pruitt-Igoe as an investment that would raise land and property values in St. Louis.

According to this view, public and private housing should be built together. The 1951 article discussed above had a second section, giving equal importance to a privately funded urban renewal project of middle-class housing to be built beside Pruitt-Igoe. The architectural sketches in the article show modernist slab buildings much taller than those planned for Pruitt-Igoe similarly surrounded by park land. In response to demand for such units, these apartments would primarily be efficiencies. The same architectural firm designed both the public and private housing. According to a journalist quoted in the article, the major businessmen investing in this privately funded project “had the kind of arithmetic which could appeal to the big companies who have big investments in the downtown.” (2) The article and the major business leaders supported both this private housing and public housing together as a way to save the downtown of St. Louis.(2)

Third, government officials and business leaders chose a modernist architectural style for Pruitt-Igoe that conveyed progress and thus would lure investors to the city. Today, from the colonial perspective, low-income residents are seen as somehow unable to live in high-rise apartment buildings, while the wealthy are somehow able to live in these buildings:

Concentrated wealth in modernist buildings today. City Center DC, Wikimedia Commons.
At the same time, as Bacon (1985) has argued, public housing had to function as a stigma. According to sociologist Erving Goffman (1963), stigma is "an attribute that is deeply discrediting" with two major consequences: status loss and social rejection.(6) To create a stigma that would encourage residents to leave public housing as quickly as possible and enter the private housing market, the St. Louis Public Housing Authority could not provide at Pruitt-Igoe the amenities of middle-class housing. Furthermore, many middle-class, white St. Louis residents did not support providing even the most basic amenities to low-income African Americans. As a result of this and the drastic cost cutting, the buildings were already falling apart already when opened in 1954.(7) From his extensive archival research, Meehan (1979) found an extraordinary number of problems, including “The quality of the hardware was so poor that doorknobs and locks were broken on initial use, often before actual occupancy began. Windowpanes were blown from inadequate frames by wind pressure. In the kitchens, cabinets were made of the thinnest plywood possible…”(7) The consequences of extensive cost-savings were deadly. Within the year that the first resident moved in, two girls fell from the buildings, one from the seventh floor and one from the ninth.(8) The budget cuts created the stigma demanded by the private housing industry and supported by middle-class white citizens in St. Louis.

With little knowledge of the actual history of Pruitt-Igoe, people can rely on the colonial perspective, which offers them a range of actors to blame for the "failure" of Pruitt-Igoe: modernist architecture, urban planners, the low-income residents, African Americans, the St. Louis city government, public housing, the welfare state, and so on. The colonial perspective also offers a perverse solution: the destruction of public housing and the displacement of its residents. Today, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project is completely gone, replaced by a forest that has grown in its place:
Forest at the former Pruitt-Igoe Site, July 2013 (Image by author).

(1) According to the AIA, “Pruitt-Igoe is often cited as an AIA-award recipient, but the project never won any architectural awards.” Sara Fernández Cendón, 2012. "Pruitt-Igoe 40 Years Later." AIArchitect 19. The architectural firm had won an Outstanding Design Award from the AIA for a different project (Cervantes 1974: 45). A. J. Cervantes. 1974. Mr. Mayor. Los Angeles: Nash Publishing.

(2) "Slum Surgery in St. Louis," 1951. Architectural Forum: The Magazine of Building 94(4): 129-136.

(3) The article in Architectural Forum identified the investors in the private housing as "conservative business leaders" ("Slum Surgery" 1951: 135).

(4) Chris Bacon, 1985. "Pruitt Igoe Revisited." Department of Town and Regional Planning, Faculty of Architectural Studies, The University of Sheffield. 

(5) The building industries supported public housing across the country for similar reasons (Vale and Freemark 2012: 385). L. J. Vale and Y. Freemark, 2012. "From Public Housing to Public-Private Housing." Journal of the American Planning Association 78(4): 379-402.

(6) Erving Goffman. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

(7) K. G. Bristol, 1991. "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth." Journal of Architectural Education 44(3): 163-171; E. J. Meehan, 1979. The Quality of Federal Policymaking: Programmed Failure in Public Housing. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

(8) R. Montgomery, 1985. "Pruitt-Igoe: Policy Failure or Societal Symptom." In B. Checkoway and C. V. Patton, eds. The Metropolitan Midwest: Policy Problems and Prospects of Change. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p. 231.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Pruitt-Igoe Revisited, Part 1

The Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis came to symbolize much more than its 33 eleven-story buildings (1). Pruitt-Igoe took on iconic status as a monumental or civilizational failure. The narrative condemning Pruitt-Igoe followed a general plotline: in the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe had been built with great acclaim and then quickly descended into chaos, crime, and violence, which led the city of St. Louis to demolish the entire project just twenty years later.
Figure 1: 1956 Aerial View of Pruitt-Igoe and Vaughn Housing Projects (Public domain image).

As the images of its physical implosion circulated through the media worldwide, the project gained global symbolism as a self-imploding failure:
Figure 2: Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe building in 1972 (Public domain image).
A wide range of people and institutions were simultaneously blamed for the great hubris that brought Pruitt-Igoe’s demise: modernist architecture, urban planners, the low-income residents, African Americans, the St. Louis city government, public housing, the welfare state, and so on (2). In these intertwining narratives, the supposed failure of Pruitt-Igoe even began at its very origins, as a local St. Louis television station announced: “Pruitt-Igoe was doomed the day it left the drawing boards” (3). Architecture theorist Charles Jencks outrageously declared, "Modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972, at 3.32pm (or thereabouts)," the time of the demolition shown in figure 1. The use of Pruitt-Igoe to condemn modernity, as well as the people and institutions listed above, is clearly demonstrated in Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi (start from 2:09), which is worth watching:

Most urban planners, architects, sociologists, and government officials can recite all that I have written above because, in their training, Pruitt-Igoe is taught as a key mythical cautionary tale. This tale is taken as "common sense" knowledge about modernist architecture, earlier forms of urban planning, the behavior of low-income residents living separately from more wealthy people, the behavior of African Americans living separately from whites, the "reality" of public housing, the destruction caused by state actions to create housing, etc. This tale about Pruitt-Igoe has shaped policy and academia for decades. It is false, false about Pruitt-Igoe specifically and about public housing and its residents more generally. 

In St. Louis, I read through the papers of A. J. Wilson, the Executive Secretary to Democratic St. Louis Mayor Alfonso J. Cervantes (1971-1973) and to Democratic St. Louis Mayor John H. Poelker (1973-1976). These mayors regularly worked on issues and concerns at Pruitt-Igoe. In Wilson's papers, I found a 1971 letter from a senior citizen living in Pruitt-Igoe to Mayor Cervantes. Mrs. James Johnson wrote:
And we are concerned citizens and we don’t want to move. We have nowhere to move and we don’t want to move. We love this place. We been here 16 years and we vote in every election and vote a democrat ticket and I thank you. [You] should look into this matter for us. We feel since you are our mayor you should help us stay here. Our committee peoples can’t do nothing if you don’t help. Thanks. (4)
What kind of world does this letter illuminate? What does the "common sense" narrative about Pruitt-Igoe conceal? My next installments will lay this out. 


(1) Pruitt-Igoe had 33 buildings. Reports sometime referred to 43 buildings, but there were, in fact, 43 addresses for 33 buildings. 

(2) R. Montgomery. 1985. "Pruitt-Igoe: Policy Failure or Societal Symptom." In B. Checkoway and C. V. Patton, eds, The Metropolitan Midwest: Policy Problems and Prospects of Change. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p. 240.

(3) Washington University Archives, A. J. Wilson Papers, Wua00369, Box 04, Pruitt-Igoe 1970s, File: Housing - Pruitt-Igoe, 1971-1972, Folder 2, KMOX editorial, June 23, 1971. The editorial also stated that any further funds proposed to renovate the project would be a “futile repetition of other costly efforts to rectify a monumental error in the project’s original concept.” In the footnotes, I refer to these archives as the “Wilson Papers.” 

(4) Wilson Papers, Box 05, Pruitt-Igoe 1970s, File: Pruitt-Igoe Housing, 1969-1972, Folder 1. Letter from Mrs. James Johnson, 2433 O'Fallon, Apt. 1000, Aug. 30, 1971. Emphasis added.

Writing about DC in NJ

This academic year, I am in New Jersey, where I have time to write (glorious!). On my DC research, I have finished two articles, which are making their way through the peer-review process at two journals, have completed a short article about the multiple DCs, and am working on a book. In the meantime, I decided to post some research I did on the Pruitt-Igoe public housing development in St. Louis. Pruitt-Igoe, along with Cabrini-Green in Chicago, play central roles in the US imaginary about public housing, as places of chaos, disaster, and failure. However, the reality from the archives brings to light a different world.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Problem of Celebrating Gentrification

Those who view gentrification positively usually misidentify the actors who drive gentrification. They also often assume two sets of actors: 1) certain older residents who are seen as destroying the city (an underlying revanchist attitude) and 2) individual homeowners or business owners who "pioneer" an area and are saving the city. Yet, they do not perceive the agency of developers, investors, and city governments in gentrification. Here is my memory of a recent conversation with a colleague (C) visiting from out of town:

C: I lived in DC before gentrification, in 1992-1993.

Me: Well, gentrification began in the 1930s in Georgetown and in the late 1940s on Capitol Hill. A lot of Capitol Hill was gentrified by the late 1970s. It's been going on for some time.

C: But there were no-go areas; we were told that there were areas we should not go to.

Me: Gentrification works by investing in certain areas and disinvesting in other areas. Developers buy up low-cost buildings in areas they think might be profitable to develop and sit on them for years. They may let the buildings fall into disrepair or may maintain them at minimal cost, which often lowers the values of surrounding buildings making them cheaper to buy. This might create "no-go areas." [According to Neil Smith's rent gap theory, gentrification "is most likely to occur in areas experiencing a sufficiently large gap between actual and potential land values" (p. 464) because disinvested areas are where developers can make the most money. When developers have finished their investments in one area, then they can move capital into the most profitable disinvested area, like Ivy City and New York Avenue NE area, see 2003 Washington Post article "Where to Build Next?; As Downtown Fills In, Only Way for Construction Is Out." And the District government helps them in these processes too (see Susanna Schaller in Capital Dilemma).]

C: Do developers do this?

Me: Yes.

C: [I can't remember exactly the next step in the conversation, but it was something about white flight to the suburbs and how DC fell into disrepair.]

Me: White flight was about white homeowners [and renters?] leaving cities but this did not mean that they necessarily sold their houses. Rather, many white homeowners rented out their houses and did not necessarily maintain them very well. [I learned this a few days ago at Nathan Connolly's great talk on his book A World More Concrete at Georgetown University. These homeowners could thus do their own rent gap, doing minimal investment on their properties and waiting out for the return of capital to the area.]

This short discussion revealed to me how those who view gentrification positively often do not see the agency of developers and investors, as well as of city governments, in changing cities through investment and disinvestment. Also, interestingly, gentrification is perceived as just starting very recently, rather than as a long-term process. This long-term process should be understood as both a process of investing in certain places and disinvesting in other places, thus investment and disinvestment are connected processes. As Sabiyha Prince (2014) writes, "Gentrification is contingent upon disinvestment and dearth in urban environments...gentrification is the end result of a deliberate cycle that begins with neighborhood devalorization" (p. 46). Where is this neighborhood devalorization happening now in DC?

Monday, October 31, 2016

Murals, Mondrian, and Gentrification

Ellen Wilson Dwellings building, August 1988.
During the summer of 1988, a local homeowner commissioned a 30-foot mural, copying a modernist artwork of Piet Mondrian on the side of a public housing building in the Ellen Wilson Dwellings on Capitol Hill. Above is the painted building, and below is the building, as seen from the 6th Street, SE, freeway underpass, before it was painted:   
Ellen Wilson Dwelling, early summer 1988. 
This mural faced a freeway and was joined by two smaller Mondrian murals in the freeway underpass across the street. By 1992, he had commissioned 13 Mondrian murals in the underpass, in addition to the 30-foot mural.
SE Freeway Underpass. 
You can still see the murals in the underpass, but the 30-foot mural was demolished along with the Ellen Wilson Dwellings in 1996.

In November 1988, just months after the first three murals were completed, the DC Housing Authority moved all the residents out of the public housing project for a long-planned renovation of the buildings. Soon after, however, the project lay vacant and later was demolished, leaving the former residents permanently displaced.

I have spent the summer researching a series of questions: What role did the murals play in the permanent displacement of the public housing residents? What kind of work did the Mondrian murals perform on Capitol Hill at the end of the 1980s? The story has been surprising, to say the least.

Here is just one small finding: The late 1980s was a time of worldwide return to gentrification and displacement (see this previous post). From my research over the past year, I have come to understand that this block lay on a long contested racial line (see this previous post). One can see the murals as an early form of "tactical urbanism," as Amanda Kolson Hurley discussed in the Post a few days ago:
Tactical urbanism — which also goes by “DIY urbanism” or “creative placemaking” — uses small, often short-term fixes (like an artistically painted intersection) to promote wider and more permanent changes to a city (like reclaiming streets for walkers and cyclists).
We can thus see the Mondrian murals in some way reclaiming land and promoting wider and more permanent changes to the city. As Hurley discusses, only certain members of the community are considered legitimate initiators of or participants in DIY urbanism, which Eric Shaw, DC director of planning, notes in the article: “if five black males took over a parking spot and had a barbecue and listened to music . . . would they last 10 minutes?” City planners often perceive similar activities by lower-income groups and especially by non-whites as illegitimate and thus not given the label "DIY urbanism," but, as Hurley notes:
"There’s been tactical urbanism in lower-income communities,” argues Veronica O. Davis, a civil engineer and urban-planning consultant in the District. “It’s called graffiti.” The problem, she says, is the gap between the largely white and middle-class planning profession and the general public. “What’s the difference between a mural, which is paint on the wall, and graffiti, which is paint on the wall?
The local, Capitol Hill media, in fact, understood the Mondrian murals as giant graffiti put up by a "brave" homeowner, as part of battle over the Ellen Wilson Dwellings space. During the late 1980s return to gentrification, these murals were in competition with other graffiti with their own claims over the area, which those in the media and local homeowners deemed illegitimate.

But why murals of Mondrian's art? What were these specific art pieces communicating? More in a future post.

Images are from the Smithsonian Institution Archive, Warren M. Robbins papers: 1) SIA Acc. 11-001, Box 76, Folder Warren M. Robbins - Mondrian murals, August 1988, 2) SIA Acc. 11-001, Box 36, Folder Mondrian mural,  Images, 1988. 3) SIA 11-001, Box 36, Folder Mondrian mural,  Images, 1988 [image must have been taken later]. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

I highly recommend this!

I went to the first show, which was truly great. It is a very innovative format and had great Q&A too. 

On My Mind/In My Heart: The Voices of Women in Public Housing 
Monday, June 20th
6:00 - 8:00 PM (Doors at 5:30)
Anacostia Arts Center
1231 Good Hope Rd, SE

Six public housing residents tell their stories along with music and discussion led by the amazing Schyla Pondexter-Moore. The public housing residents telling their stories are:
·                     Linda Brown, Greenleaf Gardens 
·                     Robin Fields, Arthur Capper 
·                     Abena Disroe, Hopkins 
·                     India Fuller, Greenleaf Gardens 
·                     Rhonda Hamilton, Syphax Gardens 
·                     Paulette Mathews, Barry Farms 

Don't miss this special encore performance!

The first show was standing room only - and some people didn't make it in the door! 

The powerful personal stories of six women who live in DC public housing communities are brought to the stage thanks to the talented script writing of Caleen Jennings and staging of Director Goldie Patrick.

This special performance is being held in conjunction with the Washington Area Women's Foundation and will be followed by a discussion with the audience on our collective hopes and dreams for the next generation of women and girls.

Space is limited. Please RSVP to Lauren Stillwell Patterson at

Visit the Empower DC website:

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Capital Dilemma Book Talk Tomorrow

Tomorrow evening at All Souls Church, Georgetown University history professor Maurice Jackson, GWU history lecturer Bell Clement, and I will be talking about our chapters in Capital Dilemma: Growth and Inequality in Washington, D.C. edited by American University sociology professor Derek Hyra and anthropologist Sabiyha Prince

The amazing Sam Menefee-Libey has been running a monthly series on "Economic Inequality in DC" at All Souls Church. The group does common readings and engages with DC scholars about DC history, sociology, and so on. 

Tomorrow, the event starts at 7pm at All Souls Church, 1500 Harvard Street NW @ 16th (Columbia Heights Metro Station). Join us for a great discussion.