"It Was Just Like Beverly Hills"

Memories stir to life each year when residents of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project reunite

"Both places were rat-infested, and they had the ash pits outside, the toilets was outside," Jones recalls. "Our grandfather had a stroke when he was about 40, and we had to get up in the middle of the night and empty the slop jars for him. All of us had to take a bath in one big bathtub."

Mayor Darst succeeded in large part because of the 1949 Federal Housing Act, which allocated funds for 810,000 new public housing units throughout the United States. Buildings of its ilk were rising across the nation, but none of them on the bold scale of Pruitt-Igoe. The project was named for two famous St. Louisans: Wendell O. Pruitt, a black World War II fighter pilot and member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, and William L. Igoe, who represented St. Louis in Congress from 1913 to 1921.

Minoru Yamasaki, founder of the architecture firm that eventually morphed into international powerhouse Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, was selected as the project's architect. A student of Modernism, he proposed streamlined, efficient high-rises.

Former Pruitt-Igoe resident Dorothy Sleydin at the 
annual reunion. She loved her summers in the 
projects: "Either we would play all night, or we would 
dance all night."
Jennifer Silverberg
Former Pruitt-Igoe resident Dorothy Sleydin at the annual reunion. She loved her summers in the projects: "Either we would play all night, or we would dance all night."
World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki 
imagined utopia for Pruitt-Igoe, saying, "When people 
go into good buildings, there should be serenity and 
delight." As the project was failing, he had regrets: "It's 
a job I wish I hadn't done."
Missouri Historical Society
World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki imagined utopia for Pruitt-Igoe, saying, "When people go into good buildings, there should be serenity and delight." As the project was failing, he had regrets: "It's a job I wish I hadn't done."

"When people go into good buildings," said Yamasaki at the time, "there should be serenity and delight." Between the buildings, he suggested, there should be idyllic gardens, tree-lined walkways, playgrounds and parks.

Inside, Yamasaki designed "skip-stop" elevators that only accessed the first, fourth, seventh and tenth floors. Those living on other floors walked down or up to their apartments. Yamasaki envisioned residents forming friendships as they bumped into their neighbors.

Darst was greatly impressed with the high-rise projects that New York Mayor William O'Dwyer had shown him on a visit to that city. In 1950, Darst told the St. Louis Star-Times that such complexes would benefit all of St. Louis. "Children given the opportunity of residing under healthful community conditions and rescued from the squalor of slums will have greater physical, spiritual and economic strength to carry on the traditions of democracy," he declared.

Of course, Darst had his detractors, some of whom said the megalithic project was an example of segregationist thinking, aimed at confining black residential areas to the inner city.

As Pruitt-Igoe began to rise in the early 1950s, when blacks were still relegated to the right-field seats at Sportsman's Park, social scientists and architecture critics hailed it as democratic innovation, a noble place to house the poor. Tenants paid as little as $40 for a one-bedroom unit. Architectural Forum reported that the project had "already begun to change the public housing pattern in other cities."

The early years of Pruitt-Igoe are recalled with fondness: "I had an absolute ball growing up in the projects," says Barbara West. "Just a ball. Given the choice between growing up in Ladue and growing up at Pruitt-Igoe, I'd pick the projects, hands down. There were hop parties in different apartments, and the place would be packed and you wouldn't know half the people there. But packed in like that, word would just spread."

As the city's population declined, an eroding tax base and cost overruns made it impossible to fulfill all of Yamasaki's dreams. The playgrounds and landscaping never materialized. In their place came hard dirt lots worn down by children at play. Inside, the recreational galleries were rife with vandalism, and there were times when only three security guards patrolled all 33 buildings. Buck Rogers had become Blade Runner.

The once-heralded architectural innovations had become danger zones. Design flaws were also revealed: Yamasaki hadn't included ground-level bathrooms, so kids playing outside urinated in the elevators.

"I used to stick the elevator for people I didn't like," confesses Rose Jones. "I'd wait until it was a certain way, then you'd hit the door and it would stick. I would wait until they got to, say, the third floor -- I would picture it in my mind, [and] kick the door and they wouldn't see nothing but concrete wall. They would be screaming and hollering."

By the mid-'60s, with the Vietnam War in full throttle, government money dried up and the city couldn't make up the difference. St. Louis lost 234,000 taxpayers during Pruitt-Igoe's nearly twenty-year lifetime. Crime spiked. Police didn't bother chasing criminals into the buildings. "Even if they have an accurate description of you, once you hit that building, they can't find you," Jones remembers.

Department stores refused to deliver to Pruitt-Igoe. In the winter, water pipes burst, flooding apartments. In summer, sweltering heat made the upper floors uninhabitable.

"People who moved in toward the end didn't have a concept or sense of respecting property," recalls Herman King. "There wasn't leadership in place that adhered to the concept that it takes a village to raise a child. And [with] people living like sardines, there came frustration and anger with not having respect for property."


Miss Lady Girl sits at her kitchen table. Her single-bedroom apartment is cluttered and comfortable: Handmade crosses and family pictures dot the walls; an afternoon Cardinals game is on television.

She lights a generic slim cigarette and explains her lifelong nickname. "I was fast when I was small, and I didn't act like a little girl. I would act like a lady. So they nicknamed me Lady Girl." At 80, she dresses more like a girl than a lady: She's got long, sky-blue fingernails and is wearing an oversize Lil' Bow Wow T-shirt.

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