Reclaiming Black Saint Louis: Pruitt-Igoe, the People and the Pigs.

Pruitt-Igoe demolition

Part One and Part Two of the Reclaiming Black Saint Louis series.

Every student of urban history, planning and architecture is familiar with the Wendell O. Pruitt Homes (intended for Black people) and William Igoe Apartments (intended for whites), colloquially known as “Pruitt-Igoe”. This long demolished community, which occupied the area bounded by 20th Street, Carr Street, Jefferson Avenue and Cass Avenue, is used as a warning against the hubris of bourgeois city planners, urban renewal hacks, and other wannabe do-gooders who end up fucking up more than they fix. Pruitt-Igoe was the product of the Eisenhower and Truman era, the era of the automobile, the GI bill suburbs (from which Black people were excluded), big public works projects for the benefit of the rising settler middle class (highways, restructuring of outdated city infrastructure, etc.), and the development of massive public housing complexes which ended up falling flat on their face for a variety of reasons. The Pruitt-Igoe projects were the brainchild of a bourgeois collective calling itself “Civic Progress”, which included several of the city’s business and political elite. 

Pruitt-Igoe was completed in 1955. 33 massive 11 story apartment buildings intended to warehouse working class New Afrikans and settlers (the apartments were segregated under Missouri law until 1956). The apartments were small, the elevators began to break down almost immediately and did not stop on every floor, and the conveniences were subpar. The occupancy of these giant blocks of concrete peaked in 1957, afterwards, people began to leave. By 1971 the site was essentially abandoned, with the majority of the buildings boarded up and smashed windows enabling the buildings to be seen clear through. This place that began on paper as a supposed miracle of mid-century, post-war American hubris and economic strength immediately turned into a living monument to the national oppression of the New Afrikan people. The middle class that it was supposed to attract fled, leaving the lumpenproletariat and semi-proletariat. This lent itself to a unique style of militant organizing and resistance/rebellion against the atrocious conditions in which the lowest, deepest masses were forced to live in the 1960s. This complemented the rising tide of New Afrikan consciousness during this era in general. Revolutionary nationalist organizations such as the Zulu 1200s and Black Liberators (who claimed the Pruitt-Igoe area as their territory) mobilized emergency relief efforts, providing food and clothing to residents when frozen pipes burst in several buildings, as Kenneth Jolly explains in his work “Black Liberation in the Midwest: The Struggle in Saint Louis, Missouri, 1964-1970”. Residents of Pruitt-Igoe were also regular participants in grassroots community improvement projects and mass organizations that had as their stated goal the improvement of the quality of living and the collectivization of property in the hands of New Afrikan people in the immediate area. Once again, history shows us that the masses are not lazy nor impotent, but are perfectly capable of taking concrete political and economic steps for their own well being. 

The 1969 Saint Louis Rent Strike, which captured the attention of the entire country, particularly residents of the beleaguered public housing system, touched Pruitt-Igoe as well. This strike was in response to a series of rent hikes in 1968, which residents could not afford to pay. 2/3rds of STL public housing tenants were dependent on welfare payments as their primary source of income, and the federal and state government was failing to assist the city in the administration of the massive projects, which were rapidly approaching bankruptcy. Once again, we see how the failure to centralize housing leads to disaster and insolvency, which harms the masses. The masses who lived in STL public housing were among the most combative and militant in the nation, demanding through picketing and other activities adequate pest control, trash pickup, and other necessary public services to prevent disease and death. By the end of 1968, over one half of the tenants in adjoining projects had agreed to join the impending rent strike, withholding rent until demands were met. Pruit-Igoe joined the strike in early 1969. The city proceeded to begin eviction proceedings and place liens on overdue (withheld) rents. The Zulu 1200s and Black Liberators provided material and organizational support for the strike, and other organizations ranging from labor unions to lawyers’ collectives offered support as well. Regardless, the days of Pruitt-Igoe were numbered. It would last only another two years until demolition began on March 16, 1972. Nowadays there’s very little left but concrete and the remains of infrastructure that once served this massive complex.

Pruitt-Igoe offers an intriguing glimpse into people’s military tactics as well. Snipers routinely took potshots at police entering the complex, to the point that the police didn’t enter except in force. This reminds me, personally, of the establishment of no-go zones in places like Belfast and Gaza, the formation of nascent base areas. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had the various Black Liberation collectives that were active in the city in the period from 1966-1972 tried to seize and hold some of these buildings and convert them to revolutionary use. Instead of viewing this period in STL’s history as a time of irreversible decay, let’s investigate the reasons for the failure of Pruitt-Igoe and sum up the lessons. For one, housing needs to be centralized. The State owns the land and the buildings, and provides quality maintenance services. The people who reside in these buildings govern them through building councils and submit suggestions for improvement to their people’s representatives. Capitalism doesn’t work like this. Even so-called public housing is run at the whim of the market and the masses are subjected to rent hikes as a result of government mismanagement and corruption. The requirement for correct centralization and guaranteed housing for all is the establishment of Socialism at all levels. You simply cannot have well-run public housing, especially for oppressed nationality people, under capitalism-imperialism. It will fail or be transformed. Secondly, the masses must be organized and politically educated to not take measures for their immediate well-being, but also to push the envelope and become Communists in the midst of struggles such as those for rent reductions, pest control, and the proper maintenance and administration of public housing under capitalism.