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


Article published in The Funambulist 11 (May-June 2017) Designed Destructions. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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 ///