"It Was Just Like Beverly Hills"

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

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."

Such reflections do not surprise Joseph Heathcott, an American Studies professor at Saint Louis University who is currently working on a book dissecting the myths of Pruitt-Igoe.

"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.

"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.

"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.

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."

"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.

"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."

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.

Mayor Francis Slay's spokesman, Ed Rhode, says in a statement that City Hall continues to look for solutions. "There are a number of people who are interested in this land who the mayor has been in contact with personally. This is a very important piece of property, due to its scale and its history, and we want to make sure that the development that finally takes place on the site reflects its importance."

The reunion is peaking at 11:30, and everyone's a little tipsy. The dancers have finished doing the electric slide, and after a brief intermission, the lights are turned up. Master Blaster asks everyone to stand, grab hands and form a circle. The crowd forms two: one around the perimeter and one around the dance floor. It's a reunion ritual.

"We want to let them know what it was like, what we've been through, what we've done, what we've succeeded at in our life," says Master Blaster. "We had a lot of good people that came through the Pruitt-Igoe."

On comes the O'Jays' "Family Reunion," and the people start to sway.

"This is unity coming together," he says into the microphone. "We're all here for one reason. It's because we're a family. We're a family that came together when the projects opened. And this is what it's all about. It's a family, baby."

He pauses as the former residents sing along.

"Put your hands up! Look at the unity around the room. These are the Pruitt-Igoe residents! Let's give it up for Pruitt-Igoe!"

The crowd hollers.

"Here we go again! Look around, baby, look around. This is family. Yes! It's been a long time, but guess what? We came together today as one!"

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