The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Chad Freidrichs, 2011)

There are a number of important films that tell a story that you’ve never heard before; THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH, on the other hand, tells a story you’ve heard many times over, but does so in a way that makes you stop and question what you thought you knew, leaving you in a state of mind to keep thinking about it long after the film ends.

In brief, the film recounts the history of the now-infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project, through the voices of past residents (as well as a couple notable experts in housing policy and urban history, including both Robert Fishman and Joseph Heathcoat). The details of this story are known by all: built in the early 1950s in Saint Louis in an attempt to eliminate slums and provide new modern housing for the city’s anticipated post-war growth (and perhaps also maintain color lines in this deeply-segregated city), the project soon came to symbolize the ills of large public housing projects; by 1972—less than two decades after opening—work began to raze all 33 structures at the site. The dramatic images of the demolition—a huge public housing project literally imploding—now serve as haunting reminder of this past, a visual shorthand for the failure of modern planning and the sad shift from noble ambition to national resignation.

“Haunting” is a good word to describe the atmosphere of the film as well: the camera lingers on empty corridors and barren trees; crying and speechless men and women, once children who called the towers home; grainy images of times now gone. But rather than offering up a resigned funeral dirge—or even a reproachful eulogy—over the death of public housing, the film takes time to explore the space created by this loss, probing for meaning like a tongue forever seeking out the hole left by a lost tooth. Through the stories and recollections of people whose lives were shaped by Pruitt-Igoe, we come to share the fears and the joys it once housed, revisiting the timeline in a reflective, non-linear way. Like Kurosawa’s classic RASHOMON, one senses that there is no simple answer to this puzzle of Pruitt-Igoe, no absolute lesson to be learned from this past, but rather many questions to continue to ask; the “myth” to be busted is that we can pin all of the problems on a single element (the design, the density, the racist bureaucracy and white flight, the drugs and gangs, the breakdown of the family in northern Black cities, etc.) and prescribe a pat prescription so “this will never happen again.”

At a pivotal moment, Brian King (a former resident and the real moral anchor for the film) describes the day his older brother was shot in front of their building: watching his mother—helpless and overwhelmed and grief-stricken—frantically trying in vain to shove her son’s viscera back into the hole in his chest. In the end, at least for the space of the movie, we feel the same mix of loss, frustration, anger, and helpless over the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe—wishing more had been done, but knowing full well that the problems facing cities in the 1960s and 70s were bigger than one housing project alone could solve.

MIT IAP 2013 Series: Really Long Films

Every January, MIT suspends regular classes and hold the “Independent Activity Period,” or IAP. In recognition of this season, our ongoing Urban Planning Film Series continues with a twist: since there are no classes, problem sets, or other distractions to contend with, all month long the series will feature some of the great long (or even super-long) films.

All films open to the general public, free, first-come/first-served; many shows include previews, shorts, and/or other video emphera. Special thanks to MIT’s Rotch Library for help tracking down titles and rights and MIT A/V Services for troubleshooting the tech with us.

  • WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE (2006): Subtitled “A Requiem in Four Acts,” Spike Lee’s heart-rending portrait of New Orleans in the wake of the destruction manages to be both intimate and epic. Originally aired as a four-part HBO miniseries, the film tells the heartbreaking personal stories of those who endured this harrowing ordeal and survived to tell the tale of misery, despair and triumph. The documentary looks at a community that has survived death, devastation and disease at every turn. Yet, somehow, amidst the ruins, the people of New Orleans are finding new hope and strength as the city rises from the ashes, buoyed by their own resilience and a rich cultural legacy. In the words of the director, “New Orleans is fighting for its life. These are not people who will disappear quietly—they’re accustomed to hardship and slights, and they’ll fight for New Orleans.” Directed by Spike Lee, 255 minutes. Thur 1/17, 2pm, MIT Room 3-133
  • HALF THE SKY (2012): Originally aired as a four-hour television series for PBS and international broadcast, shot in 10 countries (Cambodia, Kenya, India, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Liberia and the U.S.), this epic work—based on the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn—introduces women and girls who are living under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, and fighting bravely to change them. Traveling with intrepid reporter Nicholas Kristof and “A-list” celebrity advocates Meg Ryan, America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Gabrielle Union, and Olivia Wilde, the film reflects viable and sustainable options for empowerment and offers an actionable blueprint for transformation. Directed by Maro Chermayeff, 240 minutes. Thurs 1/24, 2pm, MIT Room 3-133
  • PUBLIC HOUSING (1997): This cinema-verite documentary captures daily life at the Ida B.~Wells public housing development in Chicago. The film illustrates some of the experiences of people living in conditions of extreme poverty. The events shown include the work of the tenants council, street life, the role of police, job training programs, drug education, teenage mothers, dysfunctional families, elderly residents, nursery school and after school teenage programs and the activities of the city, state and federal governments in maintaining and changing public housing. “…Wiseman salts his film with example after example of pride and enterprise. For every long-lens shot of men on the corner snorting cocaine, there are shots of chess games, sewing circles and laundry hung lovingly on the line. For every bureaucratese-speaking clerk from CHA, there is a sympathetic plumber or a roach exterminator who can’t do enough for an appreciative tenant…. Frederick Wiseman … has an eye for subtle social distinctions” (John McCarron, The Chicago Tribune).

  • As a special treat, the film also contains what filmmaker Errol Morris has described as one the best condom demonstration in film history (“Fred has a gift for filming condom demonstrations…”). Directed by Fred Wiseman, 195 minutes. Thurs 1/31, 2pm, MIT Room 3-133