Sixty years ago, a gigantic public housing complex was built in the heart of St Louis, Missouri. Nowadays, the high-rise apartment buildings are gone and a forest has emerged from the vacant lots. Together with writer Arjen van Veelen and architecture professor Bob Hansman, I went to take a look at the site where its 33 apartment buildings used to be.
We're driving around in the area that was once part of the city centre. It looks as if it has been bombed. On most lots only the foundations of the buildings are intact, and the houses that still stand don't look very pretty either. It's urban prairie. The result of disinvestment and exodus of everyone who could afford to leave. After driving through the same landscape for a while, we see a forest. This is where the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project used to be situated. During its peak years, 15,000 people had their homes here.
It was built to replace Desoto-Carr, a predominantly black neighborhood that was growing fast and looked like a slum. It was the 1950s. A time of official segregation policy. The St. Louis municipality was afraid of devaluation of city districts because African-Americans were moving in after the Great Migration. Most white people considered black people a plague and the government was looking for ways to keep them from 'spreading' through the city. Demolishing the growing poor black neighborhoods and relocating its residents into modern housing projects was one of them.
Construction of the complex was finished in 1956. The city government planned on maintaining the buildings with money from the rents, but they had a budget gap right from the start. Several years after people first moved in, the project was already falling into disrepair. Soon, basic facilities like lighting, elevators and even water supply stopped working. Broken windows would not be replaced, leaving free rein to criminals. It started a vicious cycle in which tenants left because of the poor living conditions, rent revenue dropped as a result and maintenance became even worse. What was intended as a quick fix for the slums started to look more and more like a slum itself. A vertical one. In the end, only the poorest group of people had no other option than to stay. Until the municipality of St. Louis decided to tear down all 33 buildings. Less than two decades after its construction, the project was declared a failure and it was blown up with dynamite. Bob Hansman guides us through the forest that took over the site.
After Pruitt-Igoe's demolition, the city of St. Louis hasn't undertaken anything with the area anymore. During the last half-century nature has been slowly regaining the place. There are still signs of its previous life, but you have to look closely. A manhole cover with St. Louis Water engraved, a piece of asphalt, a lonely street lamp. There have been plans to tear down the forest and turn it into buildings once again: a new sports stadium, a shopping mall or even an army base. Efforts to make the neighborhood look prettier. All the while, the city is still just as segregated. Bob Hansman isn't optimistic: "We keep finding new ways to make the same old mistakes. It's all about the way we live and don't live together. Because of the spatial separation we don't understand each other, and I don't think a sports stadium is going to change that."
Hansman is angry about all the false promises and shiny stories about a post-racial society. As much as fifty years ago, the city is strictly divided into black parts and white parts. And socioeconomic problems are concentrated in the black ones. "People talk about being 'color blind', but at the same time, they don't even know any people of color," Hansman says. What really matters to him is the following question:
"If you couldn't speak, could people tell what your values are just from your actions?"