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On a recent Saturday night at the Masonic Hall in the Central West End, the brass chandeliers cast a cheerful light over the white, two-story room. Nearly 800 chairs, some festooned with balloons, are distributed around 60-odd tables. The crowd is beginning to assemble: women toting foil-covered casseroles, men clutching bottles of sparkling wine. Soon, Master Blaster will flip on the disco lights, transforming the humble room into a glittering dance hall.
It is the 28th reunion for the people who lived decades ago at Pruitt-Igoe, a sprawling public housing complex in north St. Louis that the esteemed sociologist Lee Rainwater declared "a human disaster area."
Former state representative Betty Thompson, royalty here for the work she did long ago in helping the project's poor with food and clothing, walks up and hugs a friend. Near the dance floor is Robbie Montgomery, formerly one of Ike and Tina Turner's Ikettes, who now owns Sweetie Pie's soul food restaurant in north county. She's tall, and wears her hair short and bleached like Annie Lennox's.
Miss Lady Girl is over in the corner, a slight, elegant woman. The unofficial belle of this reunion, the 80-year-old Miss Lady Girl (no one calls her by her real name) raised six children at Igoe. "I seen it when it went up, and I seen it when it come down." The implosion, she says, was something to behold.
"It's the biggest party of the year," Miss Lady Girl says of the reunion. "Wherever the party is, it's standing-room-only. Down at the Busman's Hall, we had so many people that people would be standing outside in the parking lot. They'd open the doors so the people can hear the music. The reunions have really been something to remember."
Former residents fondly recall growing up in the massive concrete compound. Few offer bleak tales of the crime and vandalism, the crumbling disrepair, the months of insufferable heat. Rather, they speak of the sense of community they felt in Pruitt and Igoe, the twin subsidized-housing complexes separated by Division Street.
"Those were really some of the best years of my life," says Herman King, who grew up on the Pruitt side. "I've lived in Richmond Heights since 1971, but in the projects there was a sense of connectedness, a sense of closeness with your neighbors. In suburbia, it's just the opposite. I don't even know my neighbors' last names."
History, however, tells a darker story of the Pruitt-Igoe experience. Analyzed and reanalyzed at architecture schools from Boston to Beijing, the stark Modernist edifices live on as an icon of failure, one of the great public-policy blunders of the twentieth century. Even its ambitious young architect, Minoru Yamasaki, who would go on to design the World Trade Center, regretted Pruitt-Igoe: "It's a job I wish I hadn't done," he conceded years ago.
But on this cool spring night, no one questions the wisdom behind erecting this all-black, all-poor enclave. Inside the festive Masonic Hall, 1,000 former residents have flooded the ballroom, and they're drinking and dancing and reuniting, conjuring memories of their halcyon days at Pruitt-Igoe.
"I loved it," declares Barbara West. "There was something very unique and special about the relationships we had. Even though there were many, many fights, there is still something unique. It was like a very huge family."
"The shocking thing is that much of what we think we know about Pruitt-Igoe is based on materials written by pundits and interested parties over 30 years ago and subsequently repeated as truth," Heathcott says. "Nobody has ever gone back actually to do primary research, look at the archival records, talk to former tenants and try to untangle myth from reality."
"People saw it different from the outside," says former Igoe resident Shelley Johnson, "but the people who stayed inside the Pruitt-Igoe, we all stuck together, and we watched out for each other. We hung out together, we stayed, we played, and we ate together. We spent the night over at each other's houses. We did it all together."
"We don't even talk about when Pruitt was getting ready to be torn down," says former resident Rose Jones. "I don't, because it was so bad then. I don't even like to think about that. I like to think about it when it was just opened up, how it was just like Beverly Hills."
When completed in 1956, Pruitt-Igoe was a vision right out of Buck Rogers: a surreal mass of 33 nearly identical structures containing 2,870 units, each building 11 stories high. Constructed to house up to 12,000 low-income St. Louisans, the concrete-and-glass utopia spread across 57 acres.
Pruitt-Igoe replaced the crumbling De Soto-Carr neighborhood, one of the poorest areas in St. Louis. Mayor Joseph Darst urged bold action as he toured DeSoto-Carr in 1950, saying, "This is probably the worst neighborhood in St. Louis, no matter what criterion is applied: sanitation, tuberculosis, homicide rate."
In the 1940s, Rose Jones lived with her grandparents and fourteen siblings and cousins in a couple of three-room tenements in the area.