Erected in the mid 1950s as a municipal response to St. Louis’s overwhelming poverty problem, then demolished amid a plume of controversy two decades later, the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects—a cluster of corner-cutting modernist high rises—have become a nearly koan-like riddle in the annals of social engineering. It’s clear that a constellation of factors led to and even predicted the community’s downfall, such as: a lack of sustainable plumbing or wiring in the buildings, the fact that the projects provided shelter to struggling mother and thief alike, and the inevitable process of ethnic-economic segregation that the development catalyzed in St. Louis more generally. What’s more open to creative interpretation, however, is who deserves the blame for Pruitt-Igoe’s embarrassingly brief lifespan, as well as whether or not the crime and substandard living conditions were so rampant toward the end to necessitate razing. (Depending on whose account one reads, the final years of Pruitt-Igoe sound like a hell on earth or a no-worse-than-average slum that at least has a roof.)
Documentarian Chad Freidrichs’s take on The Pruitt-Igoe Myth provides neither the anticipated debunking of consensus studies (there are too many of those that disagree with one another anyhow) nor its own coherent thesis, instead attempting to grope at the individual, psychological experiences underwent in the projects that accumulated into sociological phenomenon. Blisteringly high-res interviews with the now-grown children of Pruitt-Igoe, as well as urban planning students who studied the complexes firsthand, offer testimonial evidence to the germs of neighborhood pride that lived on there though surrounded by fear, ignorance, and insurmountable penury.
Most haunting, however, is the relentless interweaving of archival footage with these talking heads—newsreels, photographs, and home movies, some of each repeated more than once in disparate contexts, which form a multimedia-driven collage of interlocking symbols not just about Pruitt-Igoe-the-historical-event, but Pruitt-Igoe-the-idea. At first, there’s dithering tension between the black-and-white content and the color material; the latter’s more aligned with the Caucasian establishment of their time, where the former provides semblances of hardened, African-American dignity. But this dichotomy eventually dissipates into a stream of eerily isolated faces and objects drawn from any source and every source—from some hazy, doom-riddled multicultural ether.
The movie becomes a montage with an ever-modulating heartbeat. Refuse thick with maggots piles up in the basement of one building. In another, a group of unemployed black men and women protest the lack of jobs available to minorities in St. Louis, but the footage has noticeably deteriorated—their voices are mouse-like and unearthly, possessing a timeless desperation. A child with enlarged pupils grips a cautious hand in a narrow corridor. A photograph of St. Louis’s crepuscular skyline shows Pruitt-Igoe’s multiple prongs, glistening with unpredictably patterned lights. On a vintage news program, an elderly white man sheepishly renounces Pruitt-Igoe, saying he’d live next to a poor neighborhood but not a black one. More and more faces appear, seemingly on display, seeming to know that they’re being not just watched but catalogued and captioned for the sake of posterity. Their hollow, impossible-to-read half-smiles refuse rather than transcend their historicity and academic significance.
As mesmerizing as this cadence is, however, there are scenes that can’t decide whether they want to be abstractly lyrical or socio-politically incisive, and the director’s have-it-both-ways compromise comes off as unsettlingly inhuman. The film starts, in fact, with a poeticism that seems wholly at odds with the concrete (in multiple senses) subject matter—Freidrichs’s camera runs across a row of calligraphic trees, blown out by a harsh, interloping sun, and some sober narration leads us through the housing project’s ambitious inception. Though this foliage, as we later learn, has taken over the lot where the Pruitt-Igoe skyscrapers once stood, there’s an unnecessary distance to this prologue’s imagery (we sense that we’re being purposefully thrown off the urban scent) that seeps through later examples of inner-city chiaroscuro via 16mm film stock and monochromatic photography.
This disorientation is in part a mirroring of the Pruitt-Igoe residential experience, of course. There are very few visualizations of the projects’ basic layout and most of the “people” shots arrive already in close-up, so we can never really tell whether we’re in a flat, in a basement, in a stairwell, or outside in the community’s gardens and streets. But this lack of structural identification confuses some of the most domestically emotional stories that Freidrichs compiles—among them nostalgic reminiscences of playing with neighbors and decorating for the holidays. We don’t have a sense of the “where” to which they refer so fondly. The film ends on a note of courage, and a call-to-action that we “remember,” naturally, but we can’t completely buy it: What Freidrichs has accomplished is a portrait of unknowability. The story being told by the documentary’s tone contradicts the very point that The Pruitt-Igoe Myth‘s most passionate speakers seek to assert. Rather than observing pride amid declining fortunes, we’re witnesses to a surprisingly monotone 80 minutes of thumping unease.