The Reality of Public Housing

This week in class, our discussions and readings focused on public housing in The United States, mainly in NYC, but there was a mentioning of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, Missouri which was torn down in the late 70’s after poverty and crime became rampant in the area. This prompted me to look into it, after it caught my attention. It turns out, there was a documentary made in 2011 titled “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” that outlined the history of this housing complex, and so I watched it.

The film was really well done, as it explains that there is this common misconception that poverty is a pathology, that poverty is a culture and a lifestyle that people do not want to leave, and this myth became the scapegoat for the government to tear down this housing complex because they felt that these poor people, in high volumes, were perpetuating their own impoverished lifestyles. According to the film, they hint heavily that the actual architecture of the buildings allowed for the growth of poverty and crime. The problem was much deeper than just “poor people, if living with each other, will bring each other down.” The real issue with Pruitt-Igoe’s decay and its eventual demolition was that the city was not taking care of the building. Its residents complained of bad electricity, broken elevators, poor ventilation and lighting, the nonexistence of playgrounds or places for children to play safely. Eventually, the government began encouraging and enticing people to leave the complex, in hopes that a smaller population would improve the living conditions for the people who remained. The problem, in my opinion, which the film slightly touches upon, is the white flight and migration of industries from St. Louis. The available employment for the residents of Pruitt-Igoe was limited, and surrounding schools were failing or poorly funded. Republicans in the 70’s probably would have cited Pruitt-Igoe as a perfect case as to why the government shouldn’t be housing poor people or how government intervention doesn’t actually help people, but in retrospect, the problems go deeper than that. The government can’t just build a large housing complex for low-income people and then not subsequently give them the resources to flourish in that neighborhood. You need regular maintenance (which is a great job provider for people who are skilled in electric work, plumbing, heating/cooling/ventilation); you need a good source of work for unskilled people to rely on (manufacturing, retail, office work); you need adequate schools for children to have access to future opportunities; you need affordable shopping centers with grocery stores and affordable clothing stores; and you need to employ security in the complex itself (security that would not abuse authority and create more tension). Truthfully, the complex was poorly placed in St. Louis since the area had a rapid decrease in population and therefore a decrease in available work. It’s a shame that it was a short lived housing complex, because with the right resources, its legacy would not be so negative. I recommend watching the documentary. It’s pretty short and makes you think about poverty and how it works.

It makes you wonder then, in that case, if gentrification would have helped some of these people. As we’re seeing in major cities across the US, gentrification is displacing many low-income people as wealthy people move into their neighborhoods to grow small businesses and increase property values to make a profit. One of the few good things about gentrification is that it’s a growing population and there is growth of opportunity… for some. It’s ironic that some of the people so heavily involved in gentrification are young liberals, but they’re elitist and capitalist. This is their way of making money at the expense of others. For some reason, since the 1990’s, gentrification has had a racialized component to it, so these young (mostly white) liberals can look at themselves and say “hey, look at us, we’re so inclusive because we’re living among these poor people of color.” Perhaps they don’t realize it, or maybe they do, but it’s a watered-down form of ethnic cleansing, or in this case it’s class-cleansing. Some people remain in their original neighborhoods, watching them transform rapidly before their eyes, but many leave because they’re forced by increasing rents or pressures from landlords, so the ability for them to obtain jobs in the new, hip neighborhood is not a real possibility. In the case of Pruitt-Igoe, if white flight did not occur and instead it was reversed, we can speculate that the complex would have been more successful. But today, with gentrification, we can also surmise that many of the families would have been pushed due to the rising costs of living.

The Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, credit: The New York Times


  1. “Perhaps they don’t realize it, or maybe they do, but it’s a watered-down form of ethnic cleansing, or in this case it’s class-cleansing”
    A harsh but unfortunately quite true statement that i feels stands out in your writing. The government’s lack of renovation and investment into low-income neighborhoods has been a driving factor in the creation of these “rough neighborhoods”. I’ve seen this first hand back home in Guyana, these are people who want to feel useful and contribute to develop their household, but because of racially-motivated and structural factors, it is quite difficult for them to do so in their communities. In response to your point that gentrification might actually be a helpful factor, i will say that personally i believe the cons heavily outweigh the pros. There is more lost in a community that can ever be gained by the presence of Starbucks, Whole Foods and other key indicators of gentrification.

  2. I liked your explanation of the film since it tied back to the themes and discussions from class earlier in the semester such as poverty as a pathology and planned shrinkage to poor communities. I also agree that government intervention can do more harm than good in terms of housing since the real goal is to eliminate poor communities rather than helping them. This also connects to poverty as a pathology because the governments view of the poor restricts them from being empathetic and willing to provide help. I believe that the negative perceptions of the poor should be changed in order to meaningfully improve their quality of life. On the topic of gentrification possibly bringing prosperity to Pruitt-Igoe, I agree with Shevin that it would bring more harm than good. Gentrification would bring prosperity, but for who? The wealthy have more to gain while the poor are pushed out as you highlighted towards the end of your post.

  3. There is many forces that push towards issues in public housing, the main one being funding. We have to consider the time this took place in as well. The cities were not the main hubs of politics anymore, since the shift of the New Deal to benefit African Americans, many south democrats shifted to the republican party we know today and with the rise of the Sunbelt, many businesses left the city and settled in more suburban open areas, leaving the cities with no funding and income. Like you mentioned it is very easy to say that poverty as pathology is the reason why people are poor, but sometimes we fail to see that big corporations, and government stand and support for big business rather than services and housing for people is the cause for inequality and unequal distribution of wealth is the cause.

  4. “…that poverty is a culture and a lifestyle that people do not want to leave, and this myth became the scapegoat for the government to tear down this housing complex because they felt that these poor people, in high volumes, were perpetuating their own impoverished lifestyles.”
    This sentence right here caught my attention in a big way. I really dislike the notion that poverty is a culture rather than a way people live. For me a culture is something that makes a person feel like he or she is a part of nation or group. Being in poverty is no way near that. The misconception of people not wanting to depart from poverty is ridiculous to me. Any person in the world today do not want to live in poverty. Living poverty means life is going to be hard, missing out on opportunities, and not be able to have certain things to be able to enjoy life. The government using this as a scapegoat isn’t a good thing. There needs to be action taken about this. This blog is really well written and points out all the big points in the film.

  5. I like how you explain all the topics we have covered in class about white flight, the landlords being unable to repair their buildings, factories moving out to different places and people were unable to get jobs. Also, I like your analysis on how the government instead of solving the problem just tries to blame on the people, poverty as pathology, stating that this particular lifestyle is into someone people and do not wish to change. They just look for a scapegoat instead of actually improve and fixing the issues as you say like not only improve the places but also providing jobs, better schools, security so the neighborhood can continue to grow. The government does not really look out for people anymore at least not for those below the upper class. These type of cases are examples of how they just look for the easy way out blame someone and move on instead of going to the roots of the issue. Very nice explanation.

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