"It Was Just Like Beverly Hills"

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

"My family was very poor," says Herman King. "We would borrow flour, basic ingredients to make food, to make it stretch. We all knew when the next welfare check was coming and were all downstairs waiting to receive the check. When the food ran out, we only had buttermilk and cornbread to eat."

Rose Jones says that "coming up, I never experienced racism -- I guess because I was always around blacks." She first experienced it when she was bused up to Marquette School in midtown. She and her classmates were greeted by a group of white kids.

"The kids came out of nowhere, surrounded us with chains and sticks and bricks," Jones recalls. "The girls didn't try to fight us, but the white boys jumped on our black boys. They beat them kind of bad."

Various plans, including a golf course, have been 
floated for the meadows that have replaced Pruitt-
Jennifer Silverberg
Various plans, including a golf course, have been floated for the meadows that have replaced Pruitt- Igoe.
The former Pruitt-Igoe site: Click here to enlarge.
U.S. Geological Survey
The former Pruitt-Igoe site: Click here to enlarge.

Jones' husband, Poochie, says that teenagers picked up by the police faced another danger. "If you got picked up, you never told the police you was from 63106, or they'd just throw you in jail and beat you. You never gave your right zip code.

"After a while we were finding two, three bodies over there every day," Poochie adds. "And those are just the ones they'd find. Most, they'd just blow your brains out and then just flush you down the incinerator."

Late one afternoon in March 1972, the first building at 2207 O'Fallon Street was imploded. A month later, the second building crashed down on nearby Dickson Street. A story on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the scene moments before demolition: "The hush, like that of a football crowd awaiting the outcome of a crucial place kick in the last seconds of a bowl game, was ended by sharp explosions."

All of the buildings were razed by 1974. Today, the Pruitt-Igoe landscape sits eerily quiet. Aside from a new school and a few small developments, it looks more like a nature reserve. Fences are rusted and easily breached. Paths wind through the meadows where once stood concrete and glass. Spider webs collect dew, and cottonweed seeds blow through branches.

Betty Thompson spent much of the 1960s working right across the street from her childhood home. The federally funded Human Development Corporation employed her to help with food and clothing distribution, and Thompson and her team of 500 teenagers (including, at one point, both Leon and Michael Spinks) worked the projects and helped their neighbors. The empty shell of the HDC headquarters still stands. Forty years ago, it was part of a line of storefronts.

Thompson peers through the windowless frame and into her former office. The walls are peeling, and trash is strewn throughout. "This is where we worked, where we gave out butter and cheese, the commodities for everything -- social service, helping people with the utilities, the whole works," she says. "And it was needed. It kept the young people off the streets, helped them to keep the community clean, and they were learning at the same time how to be productive citizens. They'll tell me when they see me at the reunions, 'Miss Thompson, you got me my first job.'"

A 1965 article in Architectural Forum, the same magazine that praised Yamasaki's concept fourteen years earlier, cast a critical eye in its what-went-wrong search for a culprit. St. Louis Housing Authority Executive Director Charles L. Farris blamed the architect, saying the complex was simply too big to manage. Minoru Yamasaki blamed a lack of funding -- and the residents themselves. "I never thought people were that destructive," he said.

Elsewhere, conservatives laid the blame on misguided liberal policies, while a new generation of architects took Modernism to task.

But Joseph Heathcott of Saint Louis University says that Pruitt-Igoe itself wasn't the problem. "Many projects in New York City were built on the same principles as Pruitt-Igoe," he writes via e-mail from Amsterdam, where he is teaching. "And while they range from good to terrible in terms of living conditions, they all have tremendously long waiting lists for residents. The lesson here is that Pruitt-Igoe failed because the city of St. Louis itself was in steep decline."

Lee Rainwater sees other reasons. The social scientist, now professor emeritus at Harvard, writes by e-mail: "On the one hand, high-rise housing was not part of the culture of St. Louis, and most residents saw little to recommend living in elevator buildings." On the other hand, he adds, "I concluded (along with other researchers in other cities -- e.g. Kenneth Clark, Elliot Liebow, Herbert Gans) that it was the overwhelming forces of poverty and racism that produced the problems."

Betty Thompson and her co-workers witnessed the initial destruction of Pruitt-Igoe on that March afternoon. "It was kind of sad to see it go, with all the memories when you're little, when you're young running around."

Over the years, various plans have been floated on how to use the vacant land. When Freeman Bosley Jr. was mayor, he talked of putting in a golf course. But whatever happens -- if anything ever does -- a developer can be assured of paying deeply before ground can be broken, as the concrete foundations of the buildings are still buried and could cost millions to remove.

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