An eerie calm has settled over the 57-acre lot where the Pruitt-Igoe Homes once loomed over St. Louis, Missouri. Today, the abandoned lot-turned-forest only hints at the many lives once lived in the housing project’s 33 apartment buildings—a fire hydrant and power station remain among the overgrowth. Notorious for its high rates of crime, physical deterioration, and spectacular demolition, Pruitt-Igoe is popularly portrayed as a symbolic failure of high-rise public housing. While the project’s disrepute has endured in popular thought and scholarly works, the lived experiences of Pruitt-Igoe’s tenants have largely been ignored. Through oral history interviews with women who grew up in the housing project, I caught a glimpse into the lives of their mothers. For these women, Pruitt-Igoe was not a failure, nor were they its victims. The women I interviewed lived in the intersection of poverty, segregation, and state surveillance. Yet, through the physical remapping of Pruitt-Igoe and what I call an ethic of empowerment, they constructed lives of meaning, joy, and possibility.
During the 1940s, a large influx of World War II laborers forced the city’s housing infrastructure to its limits. In response to the flood of newcomers, city planners adopted a growth model that anticipated a steady population increase for the next 30 to 40 years. Utilizing funds from the 1949 Housing Act, St. Louis officials instituted large-scale plans for “slum clearance” and housing redevelopment, primarily in historically Black neighborhoods. These measures intended to both alleviate an assumed housing crisis and create housing that would attract middle-class whites back from the suburbs.
City officials touted Pruitt-Igoe, completed in 1954, as a solution to St. Louis’s housing crisis by way of housing and containing poor Black populations. Using the same federal funds that demolished Black neighborhoods, the St. Louis Housing Authority built public housing for displaced families. Pruitt-Igoe was one of these projects. The homes kept poor Blacks in a concentrated, state-surveyed area north of downtown St. Louis. By 1958, the city began to run out of funding for Pruitt-Igoe’s upkeep. Conditions deteriorated as rates of crime and violence increased, occupancy rates decreased, and maintenance was neglected. Design features such as skip-top elevators and glazed internal galleries, which architects originally included to improve the livability of the high-rise buildings, actually exacerbated the problems residents faced. In 1972, the city moved the remaining residents into 11 of the buildings and leveled the first three buildings that had been constructed with explosives. The spectacle of this detonation, well-documented by local and national news outlets, solidified the project’s embodiment of the failures of modern housing design and high-rise public housing.
Forty-five years after the project’s demolition, former residents met this spring for their annual Pruitt-Igoe reunion. Quincie, a 63-year old woman who now resides outside the city, has attended every reunion. For her, the gathering is an opportunity to reconnect with her Pruitt-Igoe “family” and remember the “good times” in a housing project that the public and scholars memorialize as a dramatic failure. My interviews with Quincie and other residents reveal and reinforce the capacity of Black women to create and imagine meaningful lives within restrictive environments. I argue that these women engaged in day-to-day strategies of survival that ensured the safety and wellbeing of their children. Simultaneously, their actions laid important groundwork for the possibility of Black liberation and empowerment within Pruitt-Igoe. Historian Rhonda Y. Williams similarly considers how Black women in Baltimore’s public housing politically organized themselves around their interactions with public assistance. Importantly, the women I interviewed from Pruitt-Igoe didn’t point to specific community actions or formal organizing. Instead, these women engaged in an ethic of empowerment, or a worldview that demanded they work towards both the survival and empowerment of their families and communities.
Quincie’s mother raised her and her twelve brothers and sisters on the eighth floor of one of Pruitt-Igoe’s 33 buildings. Welfare regulations restricted the lives of Quincie’s family and the majority of the households in Pruitt-Igoe. At the time, the Missouri Welfare Department barred her father not just from living with his family, but from legally living in the state of Missouri. Known as “man in the house rules,” the regulations prohibited women who received Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) from living with men. Black women in Pruitt-Igoe were not allowed to have men in their apartments and receive ADC due to their perceived reproductive irresponsibility. Policymakers assumed that if men were in the home, poor women on welfare would inevitably have more children and cost taxpayers more money. So by 1959, women headed the majority of households in Pruitt-Igoe.
The Pruitt-Igoe welfare office performed periodic visits to individual apartments to monitor women’s actions. This form of state surveillance on the private lives of poor women defined the receipt of welfare as a waiver of privacy. Black women’s apartments became a public space where the state intervened in and regulated the lives of women and their children. Quincie recalled how representatives from the welfare office visited the family’s apartment to ensure they met standards for cleanliness and that the walls “were always painted white.” Other women remembered how the welfare office restricted the type of food and material items their mothers purchased, along with the type of employment their mothers were able to secure. State-sanctioned surveillance was a constant fixture in the lives Pruitt-Igoe’s women, as the state attempted to safeguard against families who refused to adhere to the welfare office’s (white) middle-class standard of living.
While the welfare office expected Quincie’s mother to maintain her apartment according to certain standards, the St. Louis Housing Authority neglected the building’s communal spaces. Quincie recalled instances when trash incinerators on the ground floor of her building overflowed with refuse and caused the hallways and stairwells to smell. The lack of maintenance left broken windows unrepaired and children susceptible to falling or harming themselves on broken glass and exposed wires. Other residents remembered getting trapped in stalled, pitch-black elevators and waiting hours to be freed, or waiting for the elevators only to walk into an empty elevator shaft when the doors finally opened.
Budget cuts both during and after Pruitt-Igoe’s construction left the buildings stark, cheaply constructed, and often unsafe. City officials forced the design firm commissioned to build the housing complex, Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth, to keep the construction utilitarian and the quality and materials minimal. Marcia, a 63-year-old former resident, remembered how “there was nothing soft in Pruitt-Igoe.” For Marcia, Pruitt-Igoe’s stark design and “coldness” signified the St. Louis Housing Authority’s objective: to ensure residents didn’t get too comfortable or “confident.” Although housing officials intended for the heavy metal doors, wire-covered windows, and caged light fixtures to keep costs low and residents safe, Marcia and her family felt like they lived in a prison. Yet, while Pruitt-Igoe functioned as a tool for Black containment, as manifested by its design, Black women still resisted the restrictive conditions and argued for their humanity.
Black mothers like Quincie’s and Marcia’s devised ways to “make do” in Pruitt-Igoe and remapped meaning onto what had become a carceral space. Every Saturday, mothers in the buildings gathered together and “everybody pulled their weight.” They cleaned every floor of their building and a nearby playground. Known as “Operation Brightside,” the cleaning effort took place in many buildings across Pruitt-Igoe, with Black women at the helm. Their cleaning activities responded to state-enforced neglect of the housing project grounds and also functioned as a way for Black women to assert agency over the deteriorating conditions in the hallways, stairwells, and playgrounds. Importantly, the Black women who organized “Operation Brightside” transformed communal spaces wrought with fear and danger into spaces where strategies for survival and resistance were exchanged. This intentional altering of the physical environment of Pruitt-Igoe operated as a mode of survival and a way for Black mothers to construct a community of resistance in spite of the oppression embodied by the housing project.Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.