Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Chad Freidrichs' THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH explores an iconic public housing landmark

THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH, the fascinating, deeply-felt documentary directed, as well as co-written and co-produced by Chad Freidrichs, takes us back to the post-war years of the 1950s, into the 60 & 70s and up to present-day to tell the tale (debunk it, too) of one of America's most iconic public housing projects -- probably the one that came as much as any to stand for "why public housing never works." As they say: bullshit.

St. Louis, Missouri, was the site of this project, which opened in the early 50s, and Mr. Freidrichs, shown at right, gives us some of the pre-opening PR of the day, making clear that Pruitt-Igoe was indeed a grand vision, as public housing often is. So why this did this one fail, he asks, and then gives some of the possible reasons that have been put forth -- from bad design to the encroachment of the "welfare-state," poverty-level residents that caused all the problems, bad planning and segregation. Yet even before we get to this point in the film, Freidrichs has begun with a present-day interview with a fellow who was a child when he lived in Pruitt-Igoe. He -- and the camera -- go back to the wasteland that is all that remains of the once enormous project, and he tells us a story of the time he returned to this spot, how a dog appeared, and what happened. It's all a little strange and sad; these are the two moods that hang over this documentary and that prepare us for what is to come.

The filmmaker has found a small group of ex-Pruitt-Igoe residents willing to speak about their experience in the project, and these interviews, together with some excellent archival footage, numerous newspaper headlines and stories, and interviews with local historians and officials, weave an all-too-typical tale of -- to TrustMovies' mind -- a project doomed to fail because, while funds for the building's opening and for stocking it full of tenants were provided, the money for maintaining it properly was not. Intentionally, too.

While the project had its supporters (or it would never have been built), it certainly had its enemies: banks,  realtors, the Chamber of Commerce among them. Cries about the "erosion of the free market" were shouted and the label Communist! affixed to those who campaigned for the project. Sound familiar? In an interview with the man on the street, that "man" makes it clear that the kind of people who live here are, as he so carefully puts it, "trash."

There's no mention of negro or colored, but the fellow makes his point. All this took place around the time that the cause of civil rights was coming to the fore. During this period, TrustMovies was a student at Principia, a religious college for Christian Scientists, based in southern Illinois, to which St. Louis was the closest "big city." When we students made weekend trips into the city, we were warned to stay away from places like the area where the project was set. At our college at the time, arguments among students often ensued about why no negros were permitted to enroll there, nor at the religious high school located in St. Louis itself. Public housing in St. Louis, according to the historians interviewed, was long used as an issue for segregation,and urban renewal, we are told, was a euphemism for negro removal.

From the interviews with ex-Pruitt-Igoe tenants, we learn of the some of the "rules" enforced by the state at the time: that no able-bodied man could live in the subsidized home, thus breaking up families and making the place, notes one tenant, seem more like a prison from which you'd want to escape.

Some of the anecdotes are wonderful:  the mom who could not afford school supplies for her kids and so paints one of the white walls black and provides chalk and erasers so that her kids can always do their homework; another involves the necessity for fighting that a mother makes clear to her son.

The history here is full of hope, questioning, and sadness, with some heartbreaking testimony from tenants who loved the place in its good times and tried to help save it as the bad times grew worse. "A lot of bad things came out of Pruitt-Igoe," notes one ex-tenant early on, "but they don't outweigh the good."

We go through the rent strike in 1969, as life in this project grows nearly untenable. More and more tenants move out, making it even more difficult for those who remain -- because there is now even less income to be used for maintenance. Drugs and crime rise, of course; without proper maintenance of the project, how could they not? The sonorous narration provided by Jason Henry (so different from the narration in yesterday's documentary) is a huge plus to the film, as is the terrific archival footage Freidrichs has provided.

By the time of the project's complete destruction (in the mid 70s), the strongest feeling you'll probably experience is one of sadness at this incredible and unnecessary waste. Once built, Pruitt-Igoe ought to have been maintained. Had it been, it would never have become the landmark-for-failure that this fine documentary now debunks.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth -- from First Run Features, 83 minutes -- opens this Friday, January 20, at the IFC Center in New York City. Click here to see future (and past) screenings, complete with cities, theaters and dates.

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