It’s still over 100 degrees in St. Louis, which means I won’t go outside unless the drive takes less than 30 minutes and my destination runs their A/C below 75 degrees (we run our house at 78 because we don’t want to pay $300 electric bills or be even bigger environmental assholes). Yesterday, I got some color added to my ¾ sleeve…
…and watched “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” which was recently added to Netflix streaming and could also be titled “How St. Louis Has Been Breaking Hearts For Fucking Ever.” Simply, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” is about a housing project built in North St. Louis in 1954. It was supposed to be the answer to public housing in the United States, because previously, the urban poor lived in slums close to the city’s center. The architect of the Pruitt-Igoe projects also designed Lambert St. Louis Airport and the World Trade Center, by the way, which is pretty interesting but doesn’t have much to do with the story except that everyone clearly had high hopes for the projects and they were supposed to represent urban renewal. Less than thirty years after the Pruitt-Igoe projects were completed, they were torn down, and had come to represent total urban decay and the failure of social housing services.
Like I said, that’s simply. The actual story is more complicated, and “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” is really a fascinating documentary about the factors that contributed to the projects’ failure, perhaps most significantly that of the changing (ahem, dying) dynamic of the American city. People who have spent their whole lives in the suburbs or more prosperous cities might not understand, but in St. Louis (as well as Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and other post-industrial cities), we’ve seen this firsthand and for years. The Pruitt-Igoe projects were blown up before I was born, but I still remember when the old Darst-Webbe and Clinton-Peabody projects were still standing and occupied. They were high rises similar to the Pruitt-Igoe buildings and filled with broken windows, hanging plaster, and the kind of crime that supposedly inspired the story “Candy Man,” which, for the movie, was set in Chicago’s Cabrini Green projects. And this is when people still lived there. Now they’re all torn down and replaced by new projects that look like townhouses. They’re still the projects, but I guess the stigma of the high rise is gone so nobody is supposed to be as creeped out by them. Or something.
While I don’t purposefully watch movies that make me sad or angry, I think the tell of a good documentary is one that makes you think about an issue. Not just consider it for a second, but one that raises points and presents information that teaches you something and makes you rethink your opinion of that issue. “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” did this and made me sad and angry, as well as reinforced my understanding that St. Louis is dying, and has been dying for a long, long time. Like I said, we’re hardly alone in the strata of American cities murdered by the rise of the suburb, but for me, it was especially sad, because I’ve lived in the actual city for almost my entire life, and I’ve seen certain neighborhoods go from good to bad, some go from bad to worse, and some subjected to the kind of development that was supposed to make them better and might eventually, but this is St. Louis, and that kind of thing is a 30-year project. At least. All you people moving in along Cherokee, The Grove, Fox Park, and even those luxury condos in the old City Hospital would do well to remember this. I realize that no area can be renewed without people willing to move there, but it saddens me that so many people don’t realize the time and patience it takes to see a return on one of our neighborhoods, and by the time that happens, they’ve given up on all the break-ins, gunshots, and general ugliness and escaped to the suburbs, thus starting the cycle over again.
St. Louis has been dying since the 1950s, and requires the kind of time and effort that very few people are capable of giving. It really does break my heart to see and admit to myself that I’m not one of those people. I like to think that I tried. I came back here because I wanted to. I lived in the shit. I left one job and took another because it was involved with the parts of St. Louis that needed the most help. I came up with reasons to love St. Louis even when I knew I might have been lying to myself. While I’m not saying there’s nothing to love here, in my opinion, with few exceptions, the issue is that St. Louis doesn’t really love itself. I hate to reduce it to a self-help truism, but as someone who’s spent 27+ years in St. Louis City, I think it’s accurate. The sad majority who live here don’t give a shit about it, at least, not the areas that need people to give a shit in order to be pulled back from “Beirut,” which is an actual term used by actual civic professionals to describe incredible swaths of this city east of Kingshighway and north of Choteau, which, if you don’t know your map, is the majority of St. Louis.
So I’m being depressingly truthful when I say that I can’t stick it out with St. Louis anymore. I admire everyone who has it in them to stay and work on this city’s behalf; I am not as noble as any of you. I can’t bring myself to abandon the city for the suburbs, but I can leave it altogether. Even if Seattle weren’t the goal, I admit that I’d be looking elsewhere. “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” is, as my friend Shannon said, required watching for anyone who lives in or around St. Louis, and, in my opinion, anyone who cares about any city in which they live.
It’s really a damned shame what has happened to St. Louis through the decades. The city is so economically self-defeating, narrowminded, and racially tense, it’s sad. The St. Louis job market totally sucks for young and mid professionals. Sure, the cost of living is lower, but what good is living in St. Louis if you’re miserable because you can’t find a decent job or end up stuck in a dead-end job because you have zero options? Sometimes you just have to face reality, cut the dead wood out of your life, and move someplace else where you’ve got a better chance. As history has proven, St. Louis isn’t going to change. You have to take command of your own destiny and make the change yourself.
Word. Sadly, unfortunately, word.
Today I watched “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” (plus the DVD’s extra interviews and the 30-minute bonus film, “More Than One Thing,” made in 1969 by Steve Carver, a former Pruitt-Igoe resident). I found it all simultaneously riveting, sad, poignant, and beautiful. The complete natural reforestation of the apocalyptic Pruitt-Igoe site really struck me. Those trees represent 30+ years of my own life, from childhood to adulthood. The classic St. Louis question, of course, is “So where’d you go to high school?” This film kicks that to the curb and forces the question “So what has changed about St. Louis?” Unfortunately, the answer is based on my experience of being born and raised there, and ultimately deciding to leave there where I’d having a fighting chance of a decent salary. The answer is, “Not a whole helluva lot.” St. Louis is hell-bent on remaining mired in its own crap.
Yes, this is sad. I really love St. Louis. But in a way that I’d never marry it.
Thomas wins comments.
The city I grew up in, Reading, PA, is now known as the number one poorest city in the country. When I drive through my old neighborhood and see the decay of the homes and parks that I played in, it saddens me so much. I think of all the fun times we had and now I would never want to have to live there. Trash in the creek at the park and all over the streets. There is a part of me that would love to find a way to save my city and other times I think they should just level it.
Your post made me very sad… Thanks for pointing out this great film. I started watching it the other night, and plan to finish it when I get home.
As someone i look to for tips on just about everything STL, I think you understand better than most how much I’ve come to love my adopted city over the past two years. Even though I understand, it still breaks my heart to see Saint Louis given up on, especially by one of her lifelong natives. This is a grand old city, with SO much heritage and history – and could be great again, if it could get out of its own way and move forward.
Makes me wonder how long my own love affair will last, and if I’ll eventually give up and move on, as so many others have.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
D’awwww, you’re almost as cute as your cliché.