Post-Apocalypse Aesthetics? A Pruitt-Igoe Walking Tour

At the edge of Pruitt-Igoe, a housing development long gone, but long since remembered. (Credit: Stephen Hobbs)

At the edge of Pruitt-Igoe, a housing development long gone, but long since remembered. (Credit: Stephen Hobbs)

“This is, genuinely, my idea of beauty. This is life after cities. This is life after humans.” We are staring at 57 acres of overgrown wildlife comprising the former Pruitt-Igoe, one of the most iconic modernist feats in the history of public housing, and also one of the most catastrophic failures.

The “we” in question is South African cultural producer and arts practitioner Stephen Hobbs and myself, a native St. Louisan, who has lived in enough places to appreciate the utter strangeness of my place of provenance. We are sitting in the vacant parking lot of The Rhema Baptist Church off of Cass Avenue, a contemporary edifice so cleanly banal that, in this context, it feels spectacular.

I’ve been to the Pruitt-Igoe site before, in the spring of 2015, with an academic group investigating the fettered history of the city’s development and decline in light of the shockwaves following Ferguson. In 2011, I attended a screening of the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth at a packed church off North Grand. I’d thought, before seeing it for real, that I’d know what to expect. But I did not, of course, know what to expect. How could I? How, truly, could anyone given its eerie scale of emptiness and neglect?

Looking over the “Keep Out” chain with Hobbs this sunny October afternoon, my sense of emptiness shifts. Teeming with insects, bushes, weeds, and brush, the rustle of leaves flirting with fall, the grave of Pruitt-Igoe is one of simultaneous blankness and fecundity. It is blank insofar as it is devoid of human presence; indeed, aside from a few sidewalk pedestrians off of Cass granting a polite, if quizzical, glance in our direction, nobody’s around. But its verdant quality swings to life as Hobbs avidly snaps a series of shots. “A Google Earth image of Pruitt-Igoe would be amazing, I would think,” he says.

Pruitt-Igoe was built around 1954, the year my father was born, at the height of white flight into the St. Louis suburbs and following the erasure of DeSoto-Carr, the historic African-American neighborhood at the west edge of downtown. I say “erasure” because, after years of driving past the former Desoto-Carr from Grand Center to downtown, I’d had no idea that the area was once one of the most densely populated spots in town. I’d had no idea, in fact, that there had been a community there at all, but puzzled over the lack of architectural, residential, and commercial presence that characterized the contiguous neighborhoods.

At first, I’m admittedly wondering if all of this is old hat to Hobbs—after all, he has just been to Detroit, to Cleveland; St. Louis is his last stop on the Rustbelt circuit, and he’s been here but two days. I’m also wondering how his decades interrogating the incredible vibrancy—and violence—of Pan-African Johannesburg, his place of provenance, affects his perspective of a city also, if quite differently, fraught by a maze of contradictions and injustice.

“Just like Detroit and just like Cleveland, St. Louis, as part of the rust belt, exhibits the height of a particular industrial endeavor and its accompanying dismantling and collapse,” says Hobbs. We are at the corner of Jefferson and Cass, examining two new bright billboards adjacent to two dilapidated brick buildings. One billboard features an image of an ebullient woman lifting weights, ostensibly to fend off cancer; the other depicts a beaming nuclear family. Who is it, I think, that they smile at? They seem to be smiling at each other.

I ask Hobbs how this area compares to Johannesburg, and he responds, “I think it’s safe to say that South Africa is about 90 percent more violent than where we are right now.” What should alarm instead proves a somewhat refreshing statement from someone with what initially sounds like a posh, European accent, so accustomed am I to the outsider conclusion that I live in a dangerous place, that the city I was born in is scary, more threatening than anywhere else.

The man who designed Pruitt-Igoe, a Japanese architect named Minoru Yamasaki, also designed the main terminal of the Lambert International Airport, as well as the late World Trade Center. I say “late” because it occurs to me that any building that lives, that really lives, and then dies, entirely dies, deserves that kind of modifier. Do not buildings have a type of soul—one borne of the numberless human souls that at one time clanged or chimed inside?

If so, then it is no surprise that Pruitt-Igoe is haunted. From 1954 to 1972, some 33 buildings of eleven stories each inhabited the territory; in total nearly three thousand units were stacked toward the sky, in which, across the years, tens of thousands lived, laughed, and suffered, and from which tens of thousands left. The site was cleared by 1976, three years before I was born, and three years after Hobbs, some 8,797 miles, or 14,157 kilometers, away.

I am surprised at first that Hobbs hadn’t known of Pruitt-Igoe, but then, of course, why would he? I hadn’t heard of it till my late twenties, and I spent a large part of my childhood and schooling in St. Louis city. My father is from north county. My mother went to SLU, a mere line-drive away from the former Desoto-Carr. The most obvious explanation for my ignorance is that I am white, and that, as a white person, my experience of St. Louis—its realities, its legends—had long been filtered through a lens of power.

“Whether they destroyed it or not,” says Hobbs, as we pull out of the Rhema lot, “the abandoned modernist project is, at the end of the day, just natural earth. The earth will just push right through it. It’s its own life cycle. That’s what I’m currently investigating—the presence of absence, what could be, the myths that are hiding in that forest.”

If there is beauty here now, it is surely elegiac.