The Time the Federal Government Built a Flawed Housing Project and Tore It Down 20 Years Later

“Pruitt-Igoe represented complete racial and economic segregation. The building was dominated by single mother households that symbolized the collateral damage of public assistance. This was described by sociologist Lee Rainwater, in his book Behind Ghetto Walls: Life in a Federally-Subsidized Slum, “Only those Negroes who are desperate for housing are willing to live in Pruitt-Igoe.” When imploded, the buildings weren’t even two decades old. 

The problems that toppled Pruitt-Igoe do not go nearly far enough to capture the deeply mistaken assumptions about government housing policy whose bad ideas continue today.

After clearing seedy areas, housing reformers who pushed for Pruitt-Igoe assumed that the neighborhoods they replaced were irredeemably bad and required what Architectural Forum magazine called, in 1957, “slum surgery.” In reality, the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood—like Chicago’s Bronzeville, Detroit’s Black Bottom, and New York’s East Harlem—contained small businesses, community institutions (such as a St. Louis hospital financed by African-American philanthropy) manufacturing, and, most notably, owner-occupied homes. Of the housing units cleared, according to the Census Bureau, 21 percent of the properties had “nonwhite owners.” What’s more, an additional 25 percent of those included rental units. It offered, in other words, a path to wealth accumulation through property ownership—a path wiped out by public housing.

Implicit in that heedless clearance was the idea that the private market inevitably fails to produce housing for those of modest means. In her landmark 1934 book Modern Housing, housing reformer, Catherine Bauer, wrote “The premises underlying the most successful forward-pointing housing developments are not the premises of capitalism [or] inviolate private property.” It was no coincidence that Bauer also included photographs of government-owned apartments in Soviet Moscow. 

The design of Pruitt-Igoe’s modernist garden of towers would, instead, reflect the reformer’s hubris that planners, financed by government, could build a better neighborhood.”

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