There’s a broodingly meditative tone to Chad Freidrichs’s Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a film whose deceptively simple, by-the-books documentary template serves dual purposes. Freidrichs’s main goal, which is fully realized, is the painstaking illustration of how racism, classism, and government serving the interests of big business all shaped the now-myth-like horrors of St. Louis’s notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project. The massive complex, which at one time housed roughly 12,000 people in 33 buildings, was launched with much fanfare in the mid 1950s and touted as a solution to the city’s many crime-ridden slums. It was demolished with even more fanfare in 1972 after being allowed to slide from a state-of-the-art planned community to a hellhole of violence and despair.
Right-wing politicians gloated that the failed undertaking was proof of the folly of the welfare state. But, as Freidrichs notes in voiceover, “Little was said about the laws that built and maintained [the housing project], about the economy that deserted it, about the segregation that stripped away opportunity, or about the radically changing city in which it stood.”
Freidrichs details all of that and more. Nothing revealed in the film is really new, though seeing it all carefully laid out onscreen through talking heads (social scientists, journalists, former residents of Pruitt-Igoe) is maddening; old news and archival footage of the project is riveting. What gives the film its human dimension are the conflicting memories of former residents. One middle-age woman tearfully says that the early years of the building, when it was meticulously maintained by both residents and hired caretakers, were the best years of her life. But another former resident, his face still deeply pained more than two decades after his brother was shot and killed in cold blood in the same projects, says that moving there completely destroyed his family. Freidrichs’s acknowledgment of both realities underscores the complexities behind the myths and facts of Pruitt-Igoe. Given the ongoing shredding of the social safety net in America, the film’s greatest service might be to remind us that programs and services for the poor have always had hostile enemies. Today’s assaults are nothing new.