Cara Mullio discussing design issues after screening of Pruitt-Igoe Myth at the Long Beach Art Theatre. From left, Jonathan Newsom, Cara Mullio, Andrea Thabet and Josh Butler. Photo by Jason Ruiz.
The 1950s brought the Pruitt-Igoe housing project to St. Louis, Missouri, which was was widely viewed as an affordable housing milestone until underfunding, white flight and the flattening of the Midwest’s economy rendered it an utter failure, casting it as a cautionary tale of urban design. What led to the demise of the housing project in the North St. Louis suburb was the focus of the Pruitt-Igoe Myth documentary, screened last night at the Art Theatre.
It was also the focus of a panel discussion hosted after the screening, which explored how Pruitt-Igoe and its downfalls could serve to guide Long Beach.
The opening and demolition of the project was bookended by two very different receptions, the first being filled with hope that those living in poverty in St. Louis would have the opportunity to flee the third-world conditions they had lived in since migrating from the South by moving into a “poor man’s penthouse,” the second being that of disillusion, as declines in investment and upkeep, as well as spikes in crime and vacancies led to the project being declared a disaster area and imploded on live television. The buildings stood for just just over 20 years.
The event, cohosted by City Fabrick and Housing Long Beach, brought together a panel that consisted of experts in housing advocacy, urban history and architecture. Much like the film, the panel intersected the three areas and their separate roles in the Pruitt-Igoe development and public housing policies going forward.
The discussion that followed the screening was hosted by Jonathan Newsom, executive director of the Long Beach Affordable Housing Coalition, a group that provides housing in the city for up to half the market rate for qualified families. He said that Long Beach, like other cities, is facing a daunting challenge in creating new affordable housing in the face of job loss and its focus on business-centric development—things that helped spur the Pruitt-Igoe decline.
“When you look at the development of downtown Long Beach that has changed dramatically over the last 20 years and you look at areas of central Long Beach, the challenge areas for affordable housing now, were neglected,” Newsom said. “If you look at the census track information, the incomes are higher now downtown with those high-rises and higher rent apartments, and the central area has 25 percent poverty rate and the 90806 zip code has the highest need for affordable housing.”
The issue of redlining, the practice of denying services like home loans to certain areas based on its racial makeup, and Long Beach’s own history of this type of economic segregation—one that still has visible ripple effects in today’s landscape—was visited by Housing Long Beach Executive Director Josh Butler.
Butler noted the “tale of two cities” make-up of East versus West Long Beach, including the life expectancy spectrum that deceases rapidly as you move closer toward downtown and more impoverished neighborhoods, something he attributes to intentional disinvestment in certain areas of the city. While these policies and its effects date back decades, far past the current administration that’s running the city, the continued investment in more affluent areas has seemingly persisted.
His group has fought tirelessly for renters’ rights, and most recently won a small victory for tenants in getting the city to codify certain code enforcement practices, but he said there are still portions of Long Beach that are battling similar issues as those interviewed in the film. Among those is the constant battle by his group to expand those protections to help impoverished residents stand up to slumlords and the habitability issues that persists in certain pockets of the city.
“When I see that film and I see the large complex like Pruitt-Igoe, what I see today in our city and many communities are just smaller Pruitt-Igoes that are more spread out,” Butler said. “But we still hear from residents that are living in horrible conditions, can’t get them fixed and try to work with their landlords and unable to do. And in many cases when they complain they’re kicked out.”
Ultimately, the Pruitt-Igoe tenants organized a rent strike in 1969 that led to the local government addressing the dilapidation that had persisted there since its opening, but the facility was too far gone. Asked whether or not a rent strike was possible in a city like Long Beach, Butler said that the residents he deals with are constantly considering such actions but under the set of laws that put the onus on the tenant to prove an eviction is unjust, or risk an eviction on their record.
However, the high-risk, low-reward nature of such a strike is unlikely, given the city’s lack of protections for renters, according to Butler.
“We have tenants that regularly are prepared to threaten rent strikes,” Butler said. “The stakes are very high for them and I think by the time it hit in Pruitt-Igoe, by that time I think they had nothing to lose. That’s when people hit that rent-strike stage is when they feel they have nothing to lose.”
An aerial view of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Photo by the State Historical Society of Missouri.
Much of the myth about Pruitt-Igoe lies with the design itself. The 33, 11-story buildings that encompassed 57 acres of the north side of St. Louis were built to help what was thought to be a booming, post-war city. In reality, the city had already plateaued in population growth and the exodus of middle class jobs and the middle class of the whole created a vacuum of poverty. Instead, the sheer size of the development is blamed for its demise.
The fallout also led to the belief that affordable housing projects were synonymous with urban ghettos, explained Andrea Thabet, a scholar and urban historian from Los Angeles. Instead, Thabet said it was the policies like the housing acts of 1934 and 1937 that created these ghettos and social trends that laid the groundwork for its failure and the planting of the seed for the ideas that these types of projects were untenable.
“Whites were able to leave the inner cities because they were able to buy homes that were being built on the outskirts of town in subburbs which robbed cities of workers, residents, shoppers that were needed to maintain the economy,” Thabet said. “This exodus called “White flight” and this creation of public housing and you’ve got this push-pull that’s helping to create these urban ghettos.”
Cara Mullio, an architectural author and board member at City Fabrick, said that the obvious lesson learned from the Pruitt-Igoe experiment does lie in the size of developments since then as no other affordable housing project has been built on such a scale. However, she added that going forward it will take more than architects and planners being more involved, those planning discussions must include the voice of the communities they’re built in if they’re meant to thrive.
“I think it starts with the residents,” Mullio said. “Ask them what they want and really take heart of what they say. Don’t say ‘we’re going to have a public forum and we’re going to listen’ and then not execute.”
City Fabrick Executive Director Brian Ulaszewski said that it was important to bring together all these points of view to create a more inclusive discussion as all of these topics will need to be tackled as the city addresses its own housing needs. He added that he’s thankful for the housing projects Long Beach does have—Century Villages at Cabrillo, Gold Star Manor, the Carmelitos—are mostly well-run, but the challenge is how to create more affordable housing, and from a design perspective, what layout is best suited for long-term health.
“Any one single kind of housing replicated in large quantities is not typically the best for an environment,” Ulaszewski said. “You look at suburban communities and it’s just single-family home after single-family home, you kind of lose a sense of community. But if you have tower after tower after tower you kind of risk a similar result.”
Long Beach, like much of the state, is facing a window in which rents are expected to continue rising while vacancy rates dwindle. This projection was unveiled in a report released last week by the University of Southern California’s Lusk Center for Real Estate.
Mayor Robert Garcia announced at his last state of the city address that a commission to address public housing would be created, but as Newsom pointed out, the daunting challenge still stands, as the commission will merely create policy recommendations, and won’t generate funds to create those units.
“It is a step forward for the city,” Newsom said. “The city is attempting to look at affordable housing policies going forward, that doesn’t mean money or funds yet, it just means study and recommendations.”