Remembering Pruitt-Igoe How the notorious past of "P.I." reverberates throughout present-day St. Louis.

Editor’s note: This essay, one of five in a line-up, complements the theme of this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), ‘Mean Streets: Viewing the Divided City Through the Lens of Film and Television,’ presented Nov. 11-13 at the Missouri History Museum. Find a full schedule of this year’s SLIFF offerings here.

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I have heard people talk about their earliest childhood memories but I can not recall anyone being asked to recall their very first, cognizant memory. What images or experiences can we clearly site that was captured on that mini recorder embedded in our brains? For me, the answer is easy. It was the day my family moved into one of the 33, concrete-11 story structures known as the Pruit-Igoe public housing projects. Not only was the monstrous compound the genesis of my clearest, adolescent memories, it was my escort into a brutal, benign and, yes, beautiful world.

I did not like it when my teachers or others referred to P.I. as “the projects.” That definition seemed opposite to more familiar monikers “house” or “neighborhood.” To my young ears “project” sounded like something studied, like a class assignment. Many, many years later, I accepted the accuracy of that term. In truth, my family was just one of the thousands of black people who participated in a government-financed, high-rise, concrete experiment to house the likes of us … “the poor.”

In many ways Pruitt-Igoe has been a constant in my life even though my family only lived there about four years (late 1963-to early 1968). It was there that I was first introduced to crime and violence and a community of struggling yet colorful, passionate adults, Motown music and the mysteries of race relations.

In my role as a community activist today, I use the erection and destruction of Pruitt-Igoe as an ominous warning of what can happen when rich and influential people decide poor people can be discarded, displaced or delegated to other neighborhoods-all in the lofty name of “development.”

Pruitt-Igoe re-entered my life in 2005 when, as a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I started a year-long series on the public housing project. The assignment helped fill in the social and economic gaps no child could comprehend. A few years later, I was one of the former residents interviewed for the award-winning documentary, the Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Since its release in 2011, I have been invited to dozens of panel discussions about the place. People I do not even know, who have seen the film, stop me to share their or one of their relative’s memories as a P.I. resident. Oddly, in my role as a community activist today, I use the erection and destruction of Pruitt-Igoe as an ominous warning of what can happen when rich and influential people decide poor people can be discarded, displaced or delegated to other neighborhoods-all in the lofty name of “development.”

 

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Three years before I was born, St. Louis officials were celebrating what they thought was the solution to overcrowded, slum-like conditions in downtown St. Louis. This “solution” would not only liberate people from ghettoes in the area, it spurred progress in downtown development. Passage of the 1949 Federal Housing Act guaranteed federal funds that reignited Depression-era housing efforts across the nation. Suddenly, blighted areas became valuable commodities across the nation. With the government bankrolling operations, St. Louis leaders condemned and bought up blocks and blocks of slum properties near downtown-using eminent domain if necessary. In 1954, Pruitt–Igoe, a modern, public housing model consisting of 33, 11-story, buildings on a 57-acre track of land, started accepting poor and working class people as new tenants.

City planners had underestimated how badly the white working class wanted to escape St. Louis to get away from the waves of blacks who had migrated to the city from Southern oppression.  They thought the city’s population of more than 800,000 at the time would top the one million mark by 1960. In reality, a depopulation trend was already in motion. The same federal dollars that sparked public housing in the city was also used to build new highways and affordable homes in the suburbs of the region.  

In many ways Pruitt-Igoe has been a constant in my life even though my family only lived there about four years (late 1963-to early 1968). It was there that I was first introduced to crime and violence and a community of struggling yet colorful, passionate adults, Motown music and the mysteries of race relations. 

Although P.I. was built upon the idealistic notion that working-class and poor whites and blacks would occupy the units (though in segregated buildings) together, the idea never came to fruition. Whites (middle-, working-class and poor) were bailing out of the city in record numbers. The city’s industrial based was crumpling which impacted its tax base. While city schools, public services and tax-paying businesses were on the decline, the ’burbs offered potential white homeowners the amenities, security, comfort, nearby jobs and public services they could access without worrying about those scary black people as neighbors.

The formula for operating Pruitt-Igoe was doomed from the start. Yes, the government provided the funds to build the complex but the salaries of working class renters were supposed to maintain and provide security for the buildings. It never happened. Working class and poor whites basically skipped the option of making P.I. their home. Most of the poor black residents (12,000 at P.I.’s peak) could not afford the rent-which, in most cases, was around 75 percent of their monthly income. By 1959, crime and violence was a staple of Pruitt-Igoe. Because of the welfare rules, able-bodied, adult men were forbidden from living in units subsidized by the government. The projects became havens for depraved ruffians-many from outside the complex-who held little fear of the matrix of social chaos void of fathers and fearful cops. Robberies, rape and vandalism were so rampant in P.I. that the St. Louis Housing Authority had to hire private guards with German shepherds to patrol the area.

By the time my family moved into Pruitt-Igoe about 10 years after its opening, I had no idea the “solution” had already morphed into a nightmare.

 

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To this day, I love the intro to the 1960’s sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies. Something about that old, rattily, car they drove from the Ozark Mountains to California coincides with my memory of moving into Pruitt-Igoe. My grandfather, “Pop’s” truck was not a convertible like the Clampetts’ truck but I remember our meager furnishings piled on top and tied to the sides of Pop’s hissing, smoking, but apparently sturdy jalopy.  I was the only one of my siblings seated between Pops and my father, “Sonny,” as we pulled up to our new home at the tall, prison grey- colored building on Cass Avenue near Jefferson Ave.

I was only six but I will never forget the exclamations of joy when my mother, eight brothers and sisters (at the time) arrived at our spankin’ new, six bedroom, 10th floor Pruitt-Igoe apartment.  My siblings and I were ecstatic that we no longer had to sleep on top of one another in one room or downstairs on a dirt-floor basement. We had a “real” kitchen with Formica counters, a built-in vanity and stove. The bathroom was not outside or under a stairwell with a pull chain toilet like the one at Pop’s and Grandma’s house. They were not stinky or overflowing like so many in the slum areas surrounding Pruitt-Igoe at the time. Outside our apartment, the big-windowed “common area” with its magnificent view of downtown St. Louis, seemed like a great place to run around, play, do homework or listen to music. In addition, there was a communal laundry room on one of the lower floors with working washing machines and dryers. This meant my poor mother no longer had to use that ugly, white, porcelain-bellied, washing machine with the limb-claiming hand-wringer and we did not have to hang our “personals” on an outside line to dry.

These joyous revelations lasted but a few days. I witnessed weird transformations of my family unit and behavioral patterns. First, my father-already a chronic alcoholic-disappeared more than usual. I learned that because of welfare regulations, he could only stop by during the day. Sometimes he defied the odds and stayed overnight. Still, my mother instructed us to tell strangers, especially white strangers, to say our father did not live with us.

I guess that was the most notable change. My mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, not only told us to lie about our father’s presence, she insisted we drop our pacifist ways and start fighting. The first time it happened was a day or so after we moved in. Mama sent my older brother and me to the corner store to buy something. She watched from the window us as a group of teenage thugs surrounded and slapped us around a bit. When we came back from the store, Mama was standing outside the building, eyes ablaze, arms folded, stamping her foot.

“I saw what happened,” she hissed. “We’re going to find those boys and fight them.”    

She led us to the area where the gang was playing dice and goofing around. She had already identified the leader, shoved my brother toward him with the directive: “Fight him or fight me!”

I was assigned the task of taking on anyone who intervened. Thank God no one did. From my brother’s bloody victory onward, we became the battling Brown boys at my mother’s insistence. I found it unfair to be prepped as a grade-school gladiator but my mother gave her older boys the additional task of being sentinels for our sisters. “Never let them walk alone,” she would say, adding “always keep an eye on them at school, in the play areas and in the building.”

In retrospect, I understand her motives. Pruitt-Igoe was no place for the weak. Danger seemed to lurk outside our steel apartment door, down the hall, on every floor, on the cramped, urine-scented elevators and in the streets. Often, on our walks to elementary school, we passed stained-blood areas cordoned off with “Do Not Cross” police tape. Day and night, whining sirens swirled in my ears, disturbing my innocence. New, foreign words like “rape,” “murder” and “heroin” sprinkled in my mother’s hushed conversations, alerted me that Pruitt-Igoe was something outside anything I could possibly define as “normal.”

 

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My family joined the exodus of people abandoning Pruitt-Igoe at record numbers. Occupation had dwarfed from about 10,000 when we moved in, to less than 3,000 when we moved out in 1968. Unoccupied buildings became perfect locales for drug empires and all sorts of ungodly acts. From rooftops, the drug lords’ lackeys could spot police cars long before they reached buildings of ill repute. Busted water pipes and sewer lines turned some buildings into frozen, unsanitary, smelly, uninhabitable hellholes.  With no money for maintenance from the Housing Authority, buildings were vandalized, trash piled up in hallways, children fell to their deaths from unsecured windows; sales and delivery men, postal workers and residents were constantly robbed. It was clear to my mother that it was time to get her kids to out of Pruitt-Igoe.

We moved four years before the mandatory evacuation and demolition of P.I. began. By 1974, St. Louis’ largest social housing experiment had come to an explosive end. I watched the nationally televised implosion of the first two buildings with distant ambivalence. We may have escaped the concentrated horrors within the P.I. complex but I had been already tainted by poverty and molded to navigate other poor, crime-filled and feared neighborhoods of segregated St. Louis.

I paid attention to the word “Nigger” for the first time in the neighborhood we occupied after leaving Pruitt-Igoe. It was near downtown, on 9th Street down by Produce Row where fresh fruits and vegetables were trucked into the region daily. At the time, the area was dominated by poor whites who did not have the luxury of fleeing to the ‘burbs. A group of white teens screamed the N-word at my brother and me from their car as we explored our new neighborhood. I had heard “Nigga” affectionately and disdainfully in the projects but the emphasis on the last two letters coming from the white teens signaled a different reaction from my brother and me. But, after a few fights at school and on the block, we quickly regained our reputation as “leave alone” boys.

I was aware that crossing certain boundaries in the city would invite police stops or angry glances from white homeowners. … We knew that going south of Delmar Blvd. or west of Lindell near St. Louis University was a call for unwanted scrutiny.

My father returned briefly but after a few months, was gone again; this time to prison for running over a drunken white man while he was drunk. We did not stay on 9th Street long, maybe two years. We joined other misplaced P.I. residents and other who had ventured into areas of North St. Louis designated for blacks before and after the construction of Pruitt-Igoe.  I must have attended at least five grade schools, we moved that often. As one of the older boys, I had liberties. I could stay out and wander neighborhoods as long or as much as I liked. Easton Ave. (now MLK Drive) down to Grand Blvd. were the familiar markers for everything in between.

I was aware that crossing certain boundaries in the city would invite police stops or angry glances from white homeowners. For instance, we would walk down to the Fox Theatre on Grand to catch the “three-for-a-dollar” movie specials. This was in the early 1970s when Bruce Lee, Kung Fu and Blaxploitation movies were all the rage for my generation. We knew that going south of Delmar Blvd. or west of Lindell near St. Louis University was a call for unwanted scrutiny.

North St. Louis was our sometimes dangerous but familiar oasis. We lived, roamed, played basketball, attended school and frequented churches, barbershops, convenience stores and other places where struggling black entrepreneurs might give us a few bucks for work and always a few words of criticism or unwanted advice. However, after 1968, blacks with money followed their white predecessors to the suburbs, leaving North St. Louis to the poorest of Blacks. They settled in county neighborhoods such as Wellston, Normandy and later Velda Village, Jennings, Dellwood, Spanish Lake and Ferguson.   This, of course, instigated another phase of “white flight” to the county with people seeking refuge as far North as St. Charles County and beyond.

 

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I often find myself reflecting on the last line in the Pruitt-Igoe Myth documentary:

“The City will change but in ways different than before. The next time the City changes, remember Pruitt-Igoe.”

Enormous revitalization (some say, gentrification) is happening in the same area that thousands of black people once called “home.” City planners and politicians seem to be ignoring the lessons of Pruitt-Igoe. Downtown St. Louis has been resurrected with lofts, new businesses, revamped sports and new entertainment venues. As it was in the 1950s, the disregarded and long-ignored ghettos of North St. Louis have found valuable, new relevance in developers and politician’s eyes. Two major near-North St. Louis developments-the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and private developer Paul McKee’s Northside Regeneration projects-are hurtling forward with tax-related subsidies and incentives. Eminent domain is once again used to remove homeowners near the old P.I. sight. An Oct. 31, 2016 Riverfront Times article noted the $5.8 billion in tax discounts (from 2004 to 2014) have been gifted to tony St. Louis neighborhoods that are attracting whites while losing significant numbers of black residents.

It seems the imagination of the region’s bigwigs have been stuck and stubbornly focused on reversing the trend of white population loss that started in the late 1950s. No one wants to stand in the way of “progress” and I suppose the old Pruitt-Igoe site and the tracks of available land surrounding it are as good a place as any to rebirth and repopulate St. Louis.

Still, as a guy raised and reared in North St. Louis, I am skeptical. After all, I cannot help but remember Pruitt-Igoe.

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