"It Was Just Like Beverly Hills"

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

After raising her children over the course of twenty years at Igoe, Miss Lady Girl moved into the Vaughn housing project, where she's lived for the past 30 years. She's remained there as the rest of Vaughn has fallen around her; one building remains. From her neighbor's window she can see the meadowlands where Pruitt-Igoe once stood.

Miss Lady Girl has mixed feelings about Igoe. "It was a bad idea for them to build like that so high. Five or six floors are one thing, but you had children all the way up on the eleventh floor," she says. "Quite a few kids fell out of windows down onto the concrete because they didn't have screens in the windows."

But, she adds, "It was beautiful. I look back at things I did as we were coming up. I just feel good inside, the things I really did there. The reunion just brings back the things that people did within the projects as they were coming up. It's a good feeling that people in the projects came together, and they still do. We won't let it go."

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."
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."

"As long as we're still living we won't let it go," echoes her daughter Shelley Johnson. "And even when I'm dead and gone, it's still going to go on. Because my children now are grown, and they go to the Pruitt-Igoe dance. It goes on. We're going to keep that name going."


At the crowded tables, former residents make toasts from plastic glasses and take pictures. Men tiptoe through the crowd with video cameras. In one corner of the room, a makeshift photo studio has been set up, where a dozen buddies cram into the frame as photographer James Horn directs them. A maroon backdrop reads "MB Productions Annual Pruitt-Igoe Reunion." Horn's got three color printers working nonstop while Master Blaster spins James Brown's "Funky Good Time."

A few songs later, he drops R. Kelly's "Steppin' in the Name of Love," and Miss Lady Girl works her way to the dance floor. She's wearing red pants and a red shirt, with a thick black belt around her middle. It's 11 p.m. and the Queen has just descended from her throne. Swaying with a fragile elegance, one arm stretched out, she looks up at her admirers, slaps her booty a few times, and the crowd explodes. R. Kelly's singing: "You can change the frame/But the picture remains the same/ Similar to the sun after the rain/A thousand years from now/We'll be still puttin' it down, my baby."

"Sometimes I go to the dance," she says, "and I turn around and somebody I haven't seen in twenty, thirty -- they were like that tall, and now they're grown and have children and families. When they get to the dance, they meet, they greet people, and they start hugging and kissing. It's just a family thing. It's a family reunion. It's a beautiful thing."

When Pruitt-Igoe was at its maximum capacity, its southern boundary, Franklin Avenue (now Martin Luther King Boulevard), was the cultural center: a bustling retail community of grocery stores, ice cream parlors, record stores, movie theaters and restaurants. Pinky's made the best barbecue around. A half-dozen baseball teams, including the Pruitt Stars and the Igoe Bums, swung for bragging rights.

Recalls Dorothy Sleydin: "In the summertime, we could sleep outside, because it would be so hot that the kids would want to come outside. Either we would play all night or we would dance all night."

"The neighbors were like surrogate parents," says Betty Thompson. "They'd chastise your children if they got out of line. You could whup them, and then they'd get whupped again when they got home."

"I would sneak and smoke," laughs Rose Jones. "I remember one time -- I think I was about thirteen -- all of us was smoking one cigarette, and I thought this elderly lady saw me. I folded the cigarette up in my hand and then stayed downstairs all day. I wasn't ready to take that whupping, and I knew that she was going to call my grandmother and tell her."

Jones says most families slept with their front doors propped open with a stick, and they never worried about intruders. "I think the only time we ever locked the door was when we was going to church and was going to stay a while. We didn't have to worry about that. No raping or robbing; it wasn't nothing like that because everybody knew everybody."

Across the city, black culture was thriving. Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson were tearing it up. Ike Turner had just met Annie Mae Bullock, who grew up a few miles from Pruitt-Igoe at Carr Square. Donny Hathaway was learning to sing.

Of course, money was scarce. The majority of families -- most of them mothers and children -- got by on welfare and kindness. In his book Behind Ghetto Walls, sociologist Lee Rainwater states that Pruitt-Igoe was the poorest of St. Louis' public housing complexes. In 1966 the average annual per capita income of project residents was $498, and mothers averaged 4.28 children.

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