Public Housing in the United States: Saint Louis and the National Destruction of Poor Black Homes


The initiatives within the US Housing Act of 1949 expanded the role of the federal government and shaped the dichotomy between suburban and urban life. One initiative pushed a pro-suburban policy that would allow white families to access the American Dream on the periphery of urban centers. The other used slum clearance as a tool of urban redevelopment, and attempted to replace deteriorating urban housing stock with new federally-funded housing projects. These housing projects, sited within the same urban centers that the Act incentivized white families to flee, accommodated the steady migration of Southern Blacks coming to the North hoping to escape the harsh realities of racism in the South. The Act produced counterproductive results as urban centers were drained of resources due to “white flight” and public housing projects across the nation fell into a cesspool of discriminatory practices and negligence. High crime, extreme poverty, immorality and Black urban poor became synonymous with the housing projects. Located in St. Louis, Missouri, Pruitt-Igoe was one of the first major federal housing projects. The high rise housing development was to be a beacon of hope and progress for housing projects across the nation. However, it wasn’t long after the grand opening that policy makers and the public at large began to recognize that both the physical and community structure within it had fallen into a state of paralyzing decay and the result rendered the project scarcely better than the slums it was intended to replace. Desperate for a solution, the seductive and dramatic appeal of publicly imploding Pruitt-Igoe provided the perfect smoke and mirrors. It suggested that the problem was embodied within the walls itself and could only be solved by creating a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Despite the case of Pruitt-Igoe being a significant example of a housing failure, the continued rhetoric for the project suggest that it was one of a kind. However, after Pruitt-Igoe’s demise in the 1970s, many other housing projects met the same fate and demolition became commonplace for the following generation of housing policies (see illustration on next pages). For projects such as Pruitt-Igoe, the creation of public housing and their subsequent violent destruction has ignored a cyclical pattern of demolishing the homes of the poor and obscured the truth and realities of racial segregation from the public. This practice has become one the most powerful weapons in an arsenal of spatial dominance practices against Black bodies.

The Beginning to an End ///

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Low angle oblique USGS photograph of Pruitt-Igoe. / US Geological Survey (circa 1968)

Pruitt-Igoe was located just northwest of St. Louis’s business district in the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood, a mainly African-American area considered to be a slum prior to the housing project being built. Public housing provided a solution that would uplift low-income families from poverty, remove the eyesore of blighted areas within view from downtown and contain the city’s growing black poor population to specific areas. The project composed of thirty-three 11-story buildings was conceived to be racially segregated into two sections. However, as whites were moving out of St. Louis at such a fast rate, the development was nearly all Black from its inception. The initial reactions from outsiders and residents alike were hopeful. Architecture critics marveled at the innovative modern design claiming it to be a success before its occupation. Unfortunately, Pruitt-Igoe quickly fell into disrepair as inadequate construction, poor maintenance, and unethical resident policies all but guaranteed the project’s failure. By 1970, most of the buildings were vacant and the projects were often labeled as “one of the worst ghettos in the United States.”

By 1976, only two decades after its opening, the city and housing department demolished the entire development. From that point on, Pruitt-Igoe’s romanticized demise represented the ideal that if one housing project failed, the government could raze the site and start anew as if the erasure only affected the physical environment. However, what the government refused to acknowledge and the public failed to realize is that there was an erasure of Black lives, whose fates were intimately tied to those structures.

Tool I: The Pattern of Destroying the Homes and Equity of the Poor ///

As the US population and cities continue to grow, land is at a premium. Those without land and therefore little influence are considered to have no claims to the land they inhabit. From clearing out immigrant tenement housing of the 1920s and 1930s to HOPE VI demolition initiatives in the 1990s and 2000s, low-income housing has been at the mercy of those who stand to benefit the most in their absence.

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Photographic series by Lee Balterman of demolition of a Pruitt-Igoe housing building in April 1972. / US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development

After the Great Depression, poor health and quality of life conditions of inner city slums were brought to national attention by housing advocates such as prominent reformer, Catherine Bauer. Most slums primarily housed poor working-class immigrants and Blacks migrating from the South. Both groups experienced significant discrimination as the image of the poor conditions of the slums helped to create negative sentiment against them. The housing reformers of the time called on the federal government to provide rental support for better housing conditions for more than two-thirds of the American population. After being denied federal support, private companies chose to clear out existing slums and replace them with units that could garner higher rents, pushing previous slum residents out. In response, the Housing Act of 1937 allotted federally funded subsidies to housing authorities to improve housing for low-income families specifically. Demolition of slums became integral with the law as the Act allowed that for every slum unit torn down a public housing unit would take its place.

Funding public housing became hard to implement as it was politically challenging and particularly unpopular among prominent businessmen who considered public housing a liability for downtown districts. Reformers and critics of public housing worked hard to reach a compromise that advocated for federal support for a broader portion of the population. Under the Truman administration, the Housing Act of 1949 was enacted and in Truman’s State of the Union Address, he declared that the act would create over one million low-rent housing units within the following seven years. To achieve such a lofty goal, provisions specifically for slum clearance were designated in Title I of the Act. Title III was dedicated to funding and supporting local housing authorities to build more than 800,000 public housing units. Over the duration of the 1950s and 1960s, slum clearance was used to make way for large-scale urban renewal projects such as the highway system, public housing and other public infrastructure.

Demolition during this period was so strategic in targeting Black areas that urban renewal was commonly termed “negro removal.” Public housing was often designed to increase density, restricting Black residents to smaller portions of cities and concentrating poverty. In major cities across the US, initial high hopes for public housing turned into bitter realities of the unintended consequences of housing segregation. During the 1990s, Black neighborhoods became public targets once again. City officials expressed concern about the safety of their cities and the negative image evoked by public housing. In response, the Clinton administration instituted HOPE VI in 1992, a federal program designed to tackle the worst public housing projects by converting them into mixed-income developments. The program consisted of several grants that housing authorities could apply for: revitalization and demolition grants were at the forefront of the initiatives. The program was heavily criticized for displacing a significant number of families and transitioned into the current Choice Neighborhoods. Despite the end of the HOPE VI, Black neighborhoods are still at risk as demolition and gentrification tactics take over whole neighborhoods.

Tool II: Obscuring the truth ///

The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe set a precedent of two effective diversions to obscure the truth about why public housing was failing. The first method, romanticized the moment of destruction for the public that suggests within an instant the problem of failed housing policy could be eradicated with dynamite. In the case of Pruitt-Igoe, its demolition was highly anticipated by newspapers, exposés and local stations across the nation within the months leading up to the demolition. The event was ceremonial as officials stood by declaring an end to a dark period. The most visceral symbol of Pruitt-Igoe and the failure of public housing continues to be a photograph of the actual demolition, taken by Life photographer Lee Balterman (see page 37). The frame is set from a birds-eye perspective as one of the towers tumbles to the ground, mid-implosion. The highly contrasted black-and-white image makes the voluminous smoke billowing from the structure ominous and satisfying. Despite the project taking a laborious four years to tear down, the image creates an illusion of instantaneous ease and finality that have helped to put public housing on the periphery of social issues that public sees as a priority.

The second distraction consisted in scapegoating architecture as the main reason for the failure of Pruitt-Igoe. As Pruitt-Igoe fell into decline, one of the most obvious deficits of the project cited was the quality of design and construction. Initially marveled for its innovative design, first signs of broken promises of the urban utopia and the criticism became relentless toward the misguided attempts of the architects. The sentiment was later cemented into legacy as the day “modern architecture died” by postmodern landscape architect, historian and critic Charles Jencks. In Jencks’ book The Rise of Post-Modern Architecture (1976), he poetically calls the time of death of the housing towers as if the nation had witnessed the just execution of a wanted criminal. More devastatingly, the focused blame placed on the design of Pruitt-Igoe caused architects to question their place in social reform and many in the profession retreated claiming they had no influence on contributing to the betterment of society.

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Major demolitions of public housing in the United States. / Graphic composition by Alicia Olushola Ajayi (2017)

Conclusion ///

Zooming out from the iconic demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, a clear pattern has emerged in Detroit, Chicago, Newark, Los Angeles, and other major cities in the United States: as an ill-considered plan to deal with the impoverished minorities, government officials designate isolated pockets of undesirable land along the periphery of cities upon which, inadequately-funded housing projects are built. The housing authorities are subsequently unable to provide proper maintenance and property management. As for the residents, they are disconnected from key amenities and resources, are left with little assistance and zero leverage. The infrastructural and social decay continues to accelerate until a critical mass of voices — reached only once enough privileged white neighbors join the fight — implores the government to “do something”, frequently resulting in razing the development to start anew.

Pruitt-Igoe is often clouted as a mistake from the US history that should be avoided at all cost. The symbol of Pruitt-Igoe and its fateful demise in the summer of 1972 has become an all too convenient point of distraction that does not address the real issues of continued racial segregation. On the surface, demolition is perceived as a method in search of a better solution. However, this process of demolishing and rebuilding ignores the irreparable damage caused to Black communities, Black families, and Black bodies. Rarely are projects rebuilt with the same number of affordable units they previously offered and those lucky enough to be guaranteed a unit in new developments may have to wait several years before construction is finished, placing a significant strain on already struggling families in the meantime. Of course, the argument presented throughout this text does not disregard the principle of destruction altogether but, rather, places itself against allowing public housing stock to reach such decay in the first place, and also calls to address racial equalities that have been reinforced by spatial practices in US housing policy. We cannot continue to condone concentrated islands of Black poverty and in a moment of desperation allow explosions to wipe away our guilt.