Judge Daryl Loomis will never go above the second floor in any building.
"Poverty never created immorality; poverty created want."—Joyce Ladner, Ph.D., sociologist and former Pruitt-Igoe resident
By the late 1940s, the city of St. Louis, MO, had become dramatically overcrowded as a result of increased wealth, burgeoning industry, and soldiers returning from war to start families. When the city was still notable as "The Gateway to the West," it was the most important city in the central US. The city was unable to handle the population influx and two things happened. Developers began constructing suburbs outside the city limits and the city's poorer sectors became increasingly dilapidated. The city couldn't stop the rising middle class from moving to their shiny new homes, but they did have an answer for their growing slums.
St. Louis commissioned the Pruitt-Igoe housing project (technically, two separate and segregated projects right next to each other) in 1950 as a modern response to low-income housing. The layout for these centralized high rises (designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the World Trade Center) was touted as "vertical neighborhoods for poor people" and became an inspiration for the other large cities facing similar problems. They were promised the moon: trees, playgrounds, communal centers. One guess as to whether any of that happened and, by 1968, the dream was dead and demolition began on the project.
In his documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, director and St. Louis native Chad Friedrichs attempts to tackle the questions of what happened and why the project was pretty well bound to fail from the outset. Structurally sound and emotionally resonant, Friedrichs succeeds on all counts in relaying a sad and frustrating narrative of class warfare and the modern city. I had never heard of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project before viewing his movie, but the immediate familiarity of the narrative speaks directly to the ubiquity of the problem.
Those few city blocks encompass the history and controversies surrounding desegregation, urban renewal, public works projects, the white-flight phenomenon, and the nation's poor. Friedrichs certainly can't get in depth with all of those issues in fewer than ninety minutes, but through the stories of the people who live in those projects and the historical commentary that accompanies, all of these issues are addressed in a surprisingly concise manner. Friedrichs makes extensive use of archival footage, much of which goes a long way to drive home the points being made. With stories that are both emotionally moving and politically shocking, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is one of the better documentary experiences I've had in a while and I'm anxious to look more thoroughly into the issue thanks to it.
The DVD for The Pruitt-Igoe Myth comes from First Run Features and it's one of the best entries in the label's recent catalog. The standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image isn't the best quality you'll find, but the new interviews are fine and, for the well-restored archival footage and the overall small budget for the film, it looks about as good as it can. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo mix is fine, but nothing special.
The real gold is in the extras, which begin with a straightforward but engaging audio commentary with the director, who gets into the deeper issue and the production itself in equal measure, although it is actually only an hour long, which is kind of strange. Nevertheless, we also get a series of extended interviews with the talking heads in the movie (and a few who didn't make it in), which run about an hour and provide further interesting stories. Next, we get a tour of the Pruitt-Igoe site as it stands today, which is a strangely beautiful urban wilderness area in the middle of the city. The most important extra on the disc is a short documentary called More than One Thing, directed by Steve Carver (Lone Wolf McQuaid), about a high school kid who lives in the Pruitt-Igoe projects. It's an innocuous, but poignant film that shows a very different kind of person who lived there from the type the media liked to portray. It was essentially a lucky break for Friedrichs to get his hands on the film and its inclusion adds a ton to the experience. A brief bio on the director and photo gallery round out the disc.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is top-notch work, telling a story that, while maybe forgotten among the greater populace, speaks directly to problems we continue to face today. It never gets preachy, though; the people who lived there are allowed to tell their stories and Friedrichs stitches them all together in an artful, compelling way. Highly recommended for anybody at all interested in class politics or urban planning.
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