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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
St. Louis Boo-boos
by Donald Levit

Prior to commercial release, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth was shown at Exit Art, along with a Q&A with Professor of Urban Studies Joseph Heathcott, both an adviser to director Chad Friedrichs and one of the documentary’s talking heads. The third of four in the art center-gallery’s “Remaking the American City,” it is the first of the two not centered on New York.

If not precisely villains, there are figures in it that one is uncomfortable with. But this cautionary fable points more to a perfect storm of factors: ghetto conditions, unfounded expectations for growth; federal highway and mortgage subsidies; white flight (and racism), outmoded industrial infrastructures, unemployment; social services protocol in areas like ADC, and maintenance financing, inter alia.

This man-made disaster is not unique to St. Louis, whose dreams of civic grandeur have gone largely unrealized aside from 1965’s Gateway Arch and which lost half its population (less than 400,000 by 1990), the heart of its heavy industry and its professional football team in the decades after mid-century euphoria. As indicated more in the discussion afterwards than in the film itself, metropolises like Manhattan and San Francisco, water-locked and building upward rather than out into suburbs -- though there, too --have had their despair but basically prospered as limited square footage stays utilized and pricey.

To chest-thumping hoopla, the title’s hyphenated low-income public housing high-rises were ribbon-cut in 1954, unluckily on the cusp of a downward spiral. They were designed, incidentally, by esteemed architect Minoru Yamasaki, who has had his share of bad luck in that the Twin Towers and National Archives were also his. Touted as a model for the urban future, the complex is known to the non-specialist, not by name but by footage of its demolition with ground-level explosives a mere eighteen years later.

One thinks of Detroit (subject of the series’ fourth, final film) as the poster-boy basket case, but these eighty-three minutes show that St. Louis as well has been victimized by inner and outer forces that shortsighted politicians, planners, businessmen and realtors failed to take into account. Among them, we see, were the erroneous assumptions that Depression-era-migration workers would continue to flood in and to find work nearby, that government-funded structures could finance their own upkeep through rent monies from underpaid (increasingly unemployed) tenants, and that the inner city could be kept alive by fiat.

There are the expected talking-head experts and archival footage -- some of it repeated for no reason -- but what fits the commendable whole into human context are the plain white-backed interviews with former residents, intercalated with shots of leafless autumn trees and rubble on the site now not worth reclamation, of the early state-of-the-art glory days, of deterioration into garbage-strewn pockmarked hallways and elevators, broken windows oozing icicles when heating disappeared.

Firefighters or occasional stray cops stay outside. The drugs, fear and violence cannot be shown but are palpable in the speakers’ memories. One recalls their mother stuffing guts back into his brother, shot and dying there, and the nightmares of it that dogged him, the destruction of his psyche and his family’s life. Women rightly decry rules that ensured broken and matriarchal households and absent fathers.

Others, however, are philosophic, even nostalgic. Tears brim a woman’s eyes at thoughts of the days when their new apartment there allowed her mother to have her own bed in her own room with a real door that closed. Poor but by-your-bootstraps oriented, another says her mother painted a wall black for a blackboard when school notebooks and paper stretched the budget.

The project was an unintentional experiment, devised more from theory than practical experience. Naysayers pointed then -- and still do -- to its demise as proof that the welfare state is a mistake, the disadvantaged incapable of profiting from help. Our recent primaries have heard such assertions as “We don’t need the government in the housing market,” while sociologists conclude that “only a government could spend so much money so inefficiently.”

P-IM firmly explodes that myth. With a widening rich-poor chasm and porous safety net, foreclosures and unemployment, public policies today need not less funding but more thought and compassion and less paternalistic self-interest.

(Released by First Run Features; not rated by MPAA.)

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