Blog Health Equity

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

Written by Emily Saxon, BS candidate at Michigan State University and participant in the 2019 Summer Research ProgramPublic & Global Health Track

As a native St. Louisan with a keen interest in supporting and revitalizing urban communities, I was looking forward to watching the documentary “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.” I had heard people in St. Louis speak of Pruitt-Igoe occasionally, but unfortunately, I knew hardly anything about the housing complex.

After watching the movie, I was very frustrated with how the city of St. Louis and the federal government ineffectively managed Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. In the early days of the complex, families were thrilled to live in its clean, brand new, and well-furnished apartments. What the city and federal government had failed to account for when opening Pruitt-Igoe was the declining population of the city of St. Louis. The city and federal government had based funding for maintenance of the buildings on rent collected from residents; consequently, as residents began moving out, there was less money for maintenance.

Pruitt-Igoe housing complex demolition. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research

Pruitt-Igoe started falling into terrible disrepair, with empty apartment units becoming drug dens for gangs and havens for violence, making it an unsafe place for children and a depressing place to live.

The documentary largely glosses over the issue of race and that the overwhelming majority of Pruitt-Igoe residents were black, but this likely played a role in why the city did not work harder to find funding or other interventions for the housing complex. As a result of the neglect, Pruitt-Igoe became further entangled in racism and politics, with people using Pruitt-Igoe as an example of why public housing does not work, claiming that putting masses of poor people together and giving them government assistance will only reinforce their poverty and lack of “class”, and lead to crime.

But this is the Pruitt-Igoe myth. If the funding for maintenance of the buildings had not been connected to the number of people living in the buildings, then it is likely Pruitt-Igoe could have been more successful and would perhaps still be here today.

Watching the documentary also made me reflect on the fact that, despite being a life-long St. Louisan, I was completely unaware of this piece of history that had such significant social and public health implications. I feel all students in the greater St. Louis area should learn about the social, economic, and racial impacts of white-flight, as people left St. Louis city and moved to the now much more populous and wealthy suburbs. Many people I grew up with do not grasp how socioeconomic factors have shaped their lives, and in turn, how drastically different life is for some communities only a half-hour from their home.

This documentary was very moving for me, as it further invigorated my interest in learning how to use public-health strategies to reduce violence and, it strengthened my desire to hold a career that will involve working in underserved communities to reduce violence and poverty.