Chad Freidrich spent a good 4 years researching the history of what’s largely branded as America’s grandest public housing disaster, but during the course of sourcing interview subjects, scouring archival film & video footage on the modernist structures, and reading seemingly every scholarly and journalistic publication on the massive 33-building complex that was designed to house 12,000 people in St. Louis, Missouri, he found a complex narrative that dispels many of the easy blanket statements and theories about why the state’s idealistic scheme to solve an affordable housing crisis failed so badly.
Completed in 1954 as the city’s downtown population was dissolving, Pruitt-Igoe was built with a funding plan in which monies came from government bonds and the actual maintenance of the building would be paid by the low income tenants. As long as the occupancy was above 80%, there would be a functioning staff, but with strict income restraints for tenants and dwindling tenant base by the sixties, the building lacked money to keep itself mechanically sound, resulting in a rapidly crumbling infrastructure. A tenant strike tried to force the city to take some responsibility, but in the end the decision was made to gradually implode the complex, a radical move to end both the rot of the buildings and eradicate the criminals who found refuge in the abandoned blocks police refused to enter.
Freidrich uses a plethora of archival materials, but this story of the public housing project is told by the people who lived there either during its entire lifespan, or at key periods when it shifted from pristine and communal to a dangerous complex in which the city had become a slumlord. Archival stills and film clips add extra breadth to the deeply personal stories of former tenants, making the doc less of an architectural study; viewers wanting more info on the complex’ exterior and interior during its existence can find vivid film footage on YouTube.
According to former tenants, when originally occupied, the Minoru Yamasaki-designed complex was a multi-racial, multi-religious community, and a neighbourhood that had its own needs within walking distance with easy transportation links blocks away. For some, the years at Pruitt-Igoe still hold rich memories before crime eventually started to seep in as strangers from outside of the complex started to enter and create problems.
The changes that occurred should serve as warning signs for any town & city that’s planning a singularly large public housing complex, particularly when its very design isolates inhabitants from the rest of the city. Even from the air, Puitt-Igoe is spectacular and horrifying in scale: it’s a small town within a large city whose sparse greenery wouldn’t be mature until it was too late, and the buildings were razed to the ground in a series of televised and filmed implosions (some of which appears in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi).
Freidrich’s doc is also a kind of social archeological expedition, finding and preserving vestiges of the project’s oral history through interviews with aging survivors. Today, the complex resembles a no man’s land not dissimilar to parts of postwar, pre-unified Berlin, but unlike the European city, with the exception of a transformer station and the odd busted streetlamp, any physical remnants of Pruitt-Igoe are less than a few inches above ground.
The bonus featurette “Pruitt-Igo Tour” tracks down remnants of the original streets, parks, and drainage holes, whereas any mounds that appear come from years of subsequent city dumping rather than original building rubble. The effect is chilling: where up to 10,000 people once lived, an entire history has been completely eradicated.
Also on First Run’s superb DVD is a director’s commentary that’s mandatory listening. Freidrich addresses common questions posed by prior film festival audiences, including some additional known details not included in the doc.
A gallery of unused interview clips flesh out some lingering questions, including the horrible state-imposed restriction where many fathers were forbidden to live and have any contact with their families if their income exceeded the limits of the state’s welfare criteria.
The final bonus item is a real gem: More Than One Thing (1969), a long ‘lost’ short film by Steve Carver (Big Bad Mama, Drum, Lone Wolf McQuade), transferred from one of two surviving 16mm prints.
Carver’s doc is a somewhat sophomoric profile of a teen who lives at Pruitt-Igoe, and Freidrich made use of some shots, but the doc is more interesting not for glimpses of the complex but in showing a young, ordinary kid who lived there – dispelling the view that the complex was filled illiterate, poor, dirty, and criminally-minded riff-raff. The short’s main flaw is a severe repetition of verbal quotations that present the teen as more cocky and naively arrogant than the ambitious yet average kid he is, but in terms of film technique, there are some great visuals. Carver intermixes stills, slo-mo opticals and striking black & white compositions with a great modern jazz score by Jeter Thompson, Al St. James and Richard Simmons of Trio Trés Bien (plus some vocal material performed by Eddie Eaton) supporting the central subject and the character of the neighbourhood.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan