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.