Public housing documentary silent on how law affected segregation

Last night, my wife and I watched a recent documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, about the notorious Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis. We had an interesting discussion afterward, prompted largely by our professional perspectives on the issue. She writes about architecture. I write about the law.  I found the film to be fascinating, largely due to the precipitous decline and fall of the project, which was completed in 1956 and demolished as soon as the mid-1970s. But I also found it to be oddly lacking when it came to the major issue of race.

The aim of the filmmakers appeared to be to show that Pruitt-Igoe was not a failure due to design flaws or some kind of inherent problem with public housing in general, but rather that it was a victim of poor policy-making, the economic decline of the city, and — the elephant in the room — racial discrimination (a large number of tenants being African-Americans who were moved from slum areas that were redeveloped). Nothing much to complain about there, apart from the way the movie really did not tackle the race issue head-on. In particular, while focusing on the economic problems in St. Louis and the rise of the suburbs, it shied away from analyzing  how much those changes were related to”white flight” and how court decisions played a major role in that phenomenon (in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation ruling). For example, a court ordered desegregation of public housing in St. Louis in 1956, apparently, but no mention was made of that in the movie. There was also no reference to the fact that, originally, Pruitt-Igoe was intended for African-Americans and whites (albeit segregated, according to a Wikipedia entry that, I hasten to add, does have footnotes), while by the end it seemed to be almost exclusively African-American. Surely that is a relevant issue to examine when looking at why the project failed so spectacularly? The film did include some clips of white suburbanites exhibiting racial bias in explaining why they didn’t want African-Americans moving in, but that doesn’t directly touch upon the reasoning behind why African-Americans were concentrated (and, it would appear, neglected) at Pruitt-Igoe.

About a decade ago, I covered a lengthy trial in Baltimore about allegations of racial discrimination in the way housing projects were planned in the city. In that case, Thompson v. HUD, it seemed like everyone who had ever been in a position of authority with any influence over housing in Baltimore was on trial (by coincidence, the parties agreed to a settlement just last week). There was little doubt that the motivation behind building large-scale high-rise public housing developments in the early days was not to end segregation but to perpetuate it. That experience in a Baltimore courtroom obviously informed my response to The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. So, while I think it was a moving and worthy effort, I feel the filmmakers downplayed the race factor and really needed a civil rights lawyer or law professor on camera to explain the legal background.  I find it odd that they didn’t, as it would not have conflicted at all with the story they were trying to tell.

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Lawrence Hurley

Reporter based in Washington