‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth’ explored

In the last decade, Pasadena has changed in ways that might have misjudged the times. Witness the many empty new luxury apartments that rose up in and about the time Paseo Colorado was built. “The Pruitt Igoe Myth” is a cautionary tale that perhaps all builders should see.

Director Chad Freidrichs took four years to complete “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.” According to the movie, many former residents were ashamed of their association with the housing complex. Somehow, Freidrichs found them and with some scholars and old grainy films, he has composed an elegy for good intentions in a segregated city.

Designed by Japanese-American Minoru Yamasaki, the buildings were named for two people: Wendell O. Pruitt and William L. Igoe. Pruitt was a St. Louis-born Tuskegee Air Force pilot. He and Lee Archer were the “Gruesome Twosome,” the pair with the most air victories. He achieved the rank of captain before his death during a 1945 training accident.

Igoe was a member of Congress, representing Missouri (Democrat), serving from 1913-1921. Igoe had previously served on the municipal assembly of St. Louis before his election to the House. When he left Congress, he resumed being an attorney in St. Louis. He died in 1953 at age 74.

Originally, in the still segregated city, the complex was supposed to be Pruitt Homes for African Americans and Igoe apartments for whites.

The Seattle-born Yamasaki knew something about segregation; he avoided the internment during World War II because he was working for a prominent firm in Detroit and his parents were in New York. Yamasaki is most famous for his design of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The St. Louis Pruitt-Igoe housing project was his first major project. On completion in 1955, Pruitt-Igoe was 33 11-story apartment buildings.

Pruitt-Igoe became linked together, at first, as a supposedly progressive statement in urban renewal and later, when the it went into decline, as a symbol of  the failure of modernist architecture. Yet Freidrichs considers that a simplistic viewpoint. Demographics were changing. The population was shifting away from the city centers to the suburbs. Maintenance costs weren’t covered by the rent. Racist policies that attempted to place curious controls upon the residents such as banning the fathers from moving in with their families. The cities were still largely segregated and so were the job opportunities.

Beginning in 1972, the buildings were imploded until the last one was demolished in 1976. Freidrichs documentary takes us from the moves from shacks and slums to the delight of being in a new sunny apartment to the slow decline of this dream.

In Pasadena, Paseo Colorado seemed to aim for affluent renters and shoppers. The Terrace apartments are rarely full and how about the other luxury apartments that popped up in Pasadena while the clerks and sales people, the students at PCC, Caltech and Art Center scramble for affordable housing. In looking towards the haves, the have-nots were ignored and to a certain degree the middle-class was underserved. Instead of thinking of separating and segregating one group, rich or poor, perhaps it’s better to think of how the community as a whole is best served.

This documentary is best teamed with the play (or movie) of “A Raisin in the Sun” and the more recent “Clybourne Park.” Dreams are rarely sweet or successful when limited by the barriers of hate and racism.

This movie came through Pasadena during the fall 2011, but you can order the DVD from the website or Amazon.com.

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