New Documentary Implodes Urban Housing Myths

Pruitt-Igoe. Cabrini-Green. Mellifluous hyphenates that have evoked, in turn, hope, pride, fear, terror, shame, and utter disappointment in utopias, razed. In The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, filmmaker Chad Friedrichs wades through the thicket of emotions aroused by the infamous public housing project, built in the early 1950s by the St. Louis Housing Authority, to examine what comes between optimism—for 33 pristine, Minoru Yamasaki-designed high-rises that promised to solve the problems of overcrowding in a then-booming inner city—and disillusionment, with a vertical ghetto that, just two decades later, was leveled and declared unfit for habitation. This documentary is complex and fascinating: a chilling clash of Modernist zeal, postwar urban decline, and racial tensions that plays out through an incredibly rich (and masterfully edited) collage of archival footage and the individual stories of a handful of former Pruitt-Igoe residents, who share their memories against a backdrop of optic white. “So much of our collective understanding of cities and government and inequality are tied up in those thirty-three high-rise buildings, informed by the demolition image,” notes Friedrichs in his notes on the film, now playing at the IFC Center. “Too much of the context has been overlooked, or willfully ignored, in discussions of public housing, public welfare, and the state of the American city. Pruitt-Igoe needs to be remembered and understood—in a different way that it has been—because the city will change again.”

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is now playing at New York’s IFC Center. Click here for a schedule of upcoming screenings nationwide.