Perhaps the most prominent cultural difference between Canada and its southern
neighbour comes down to trust. Canadians, with our history of social welfare and public health care, tend to embed a lot of faith into the institutions of the country and the people that run them.
This can waiver, as is the case for some citizens under the current government, but good governance is a pillar of our constitution and continues to be something we take as a given.
In the United States, trust in government has steadily declined since the early 1970s. After
Watergate, the idea that a government would not consciously engage in illegal activity to the
detriment of citizens went out the window. Though the government was widely perceived as being incapable of responsible spending, distrust of public works actually began in earnest after 1950.
At the turn of the 20th century, St. Louis was one of America’s leading cities. It hosted the World’s Fair in 1904, and the city steadily grew until 1950, when development peaked. In 1951, its population dropped; instead of reacting to this, city officials continued their push to build downtown housing for the crowding city. It opened the Pruitt-Igoe project in 1954. The public housing gave clean, safe apartments to the city’s urban poor—much of whom were African-American and highly marginalized at the time—and was a public housing success. For a time.
In The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, the filmmakers argue this project was doomed from its inception. Almost immediately after it was built, funding began to be rolled back by private interests who opposed public housing for financial (leeching profits from private developers) or ideological reasons (it was seen as un-American and a mindset for the Soviets). Save for a few golden years of community and efficiency, detailed in the film by former tenants, Pruitt-Igoe represented the worst of what projects would become in the following decades.
St. Louis, like almost all American cities at the time, was becoming increasingly suburbanized. As the middle class abandoned the city, tax money disappeared. And for Pruitt-Igoe, which became supported exclusively by the income of its residents, this was a disaster.
Interviewees in the film detail elevators that would stop in transit, stranding riders, and of
corners of rooms that became latrines. All the while, city officials enforced segregation and exploited the power public housing gave them over residents.
The conditions became so desperate that the residents went on a rent strike as the last resort, they said, in the fight for decent housing. Much of the water turned to ice after a massive water leak occurred during the winter. Residents pleaded for disaster relief to little avail.
St. Louis eventually decided to shut Pruitt-Igoe down, though not in one fell swoop. As residents moved out, drug dealers and pimps began to use the empty building as a base of operation for their activities. It was the ideal fortress: an empty high-rise with hundreds of rooms to hide in and vantage points that could spot incoming police for miles.
The film gives little time to showcase the government’s or the private sector’s point of view. This is a shame, because it would lend needed legitimacy to an otherwise excellent documentary. It’s hard not to be skeptical of the simplicity with which the film presents the rise and fall of the project; surely, there is a litany of reasons the project failed. Though the city’s abandoning of it would likely top this list, not broadening the issue’s viewpoint weakens the film.
The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe became the symbol of America’s failure in implementing public housing and, in a larger context, the country’s shortcomings when it comes to public works. But the film makes an excellent point in the closing minutes: Pruitt-Igoe is also an example of the decline of St. Louis and, it argues, the American city in general.
The buildings were once a paradise for its residents, and failed, not because of its residents, as popular history remembers, but because of its owners. As the arguments for privatization creep north of the 49th parallel, it would be useful to remember places like St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe project.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth will be shown on March 19 at 7 p.m. in H-110. For more information, visit www.cinemapolitica.org/concordia.