The indelible memory of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in north St. Louis is of a hulking high-rise crumbling to the ground in 1972. A new exhibit at the Sheldon Art Galleries chronicles the lives of the people who moved to Pruitt-Igoe beginning in 1954 and examines why a project with such high hopes became a symbol of the failure of public housing in America.
One photo in the exhibit shows a woman and her children looking down on their old neighborhood of shoddy houses and outdoor toilets from their new home at Pruitt-Igoe. "People often romanticize these neighborhoods, and there were great things about them -- support networks, kinships. But it was also terrible housing," explains Joseph Heathcott, professor of American Studies at St. Louis University, who curated the project with graduate students in the American City Studio. The original plans for Pruitt-Igoe called for garden apartments and tree-lined plazas. That never happened, but the 33-building complex still offered basic amenities such as indoor plumbing, laundry facilities and playgrounds.
Another photo in the exhibition shows a teacher reading to children at the complex's on-site daycare. The exhibit shows how residents lobbied for amenities such as a health clinic and library and organized youth groups and community events.
Eventually, "the project suffered the same fate that the rest of the city of St. Louis suffered," posits Heathcott. As middle-class people moved from the city, more housing became available. Fewer people moved into Pruitt-Igoe; others moved out. Before long, the government had less money from rents to maintain the buildings and they fell apart.
Pruitt-Igoe became "the poster child in the attack on the liberal welfare system nationwide," Heathcott says. He hopes the exhibit will remind people of the promise it once held and the step-up it provided to thousands of St. Louis families.