IN THE SHADOW OF PRUITT-IGOE
St. Louis’s Long Tradition of Displacing Urban Poor
by Hannah Sternberg, Castle Coalition Maffucci Fellow
Macler Shepherd’s home was destroyed. Twice. Under the banner of urban renewal, city officials waved the bulldozers into Shepherd’s neighborhood – then, remarkably, the same thing happened to his next home. But when Shepherd saw the wrecking ball looming a third time, he took action. His roots had been torn up enough in the name of revitalization.
His cry could be the voice of hundreds of St. Louis Northside residents, mostly black, whose businesses and churches are now threatened by eminent domain for private developer Paul McKee’s plan to “revitalize” a massive 2,000-acre swath of the city. But Macler Shepherd wasn’t a new face in the story of the city’s destructive policies. He took his stand in 1966, and saved St. Louis’s predominantly black Yateman neighborhood in 1979. His struggle took place in the middle of a long tradition of eminent domain abuse and the displacement of black urban communities in St. Louis. Few endeavors have left as lasting or as noxious a mark on urban renewal’s reputation as St. Louis’s own Pruitt-Igoe, an icon of strong-arm redevelopment’s failure to replace the communities it destroys.
Originally planned in 1950 as a segregated public housing project for blacks and whites, Pruitt-Igoe opened in 1954. After desegregation, the project’s residents, housed in 33 high rise apartment buildings, remained largely black and poor as wealthier whites fled the project’s festering decay. At its inception, Pruitt-Igoe was hailed as a boon for urban redevelopment. But the bright image was soon reversed. By the 1960s, the project was mostly abandoned, its common areas magnets for crime, its graffitied and boarded facades an outward sign of the deterioration they contained. Occupancy plunged to one-third capacity. The stairwell to a resident’s apartment could be as dangerous as a dark city alleyway at night. In 1972, less than twenty years after the fanfare of its opening, demolition began on Pruitt-Igoe.
In St. Louis’s half-century history of public housing, its projects have often been drawn into the bi-decadal cycle of construction, decay, demolition, and displacement. By the 1980s, researchers speculated that urban renewal and public housing actually contributed to homelessness in cities. This is the process: city planners and private developers declare an area “blighted” – in Missouri, based on vague criteria like “inadequate street layout” – and decide to raze the neighborhood to rebuild, often attempting to upscale the area. Plans often include public housing to provide a new home for the (frequently black) residents who will be uprooted and priced out by the redevelopment. The public housing projects subsequently decay due to poor planning, overcrowding, or the rootlessness of the community. Then the housing projects are declared a failure, even a new blight, and residents are shunted out of them once again to make way for bigger, “better” things. Or empty lots.
The destruction of community ties caused by destructive urban renewal practices is known as “root shock.” Psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove writes, “Root shock, at the level of the individual, is a profound emotional upheaval that destroys the working model of the world that had existed in the individual’s head. Root shock undermines trust, increases anxiety about loved ones out of one’s sight, destabilizes relationships, destroys social, emotional, and financial resources, and increases the risk for every kind of stress-related disease.” When impoverished communities are preyed upon by urban redevelopers, their stabilizing community relationships are shredded by displacement. Architects try to artificially reconstruct the community atmosphere in ergonomic public housing buildings, but as Pruitt-Igoe illustrates, these cannot replace the loss of true neighborhood spirit.
Black communities destroyed by urban renewal and rampant eminent domain abuse are not only displaced; they are dispossessed. By losing the support of their community and the power of their united spirit, they are even disenfranchised. St. Louis was a center for civil rights action in the 1960s. But it also has a tradition, continuing today, of destroying its most vulnerable black communities, denying them a home in the neighborhoods they have chosen, built, and trust.
In the acclaimed 1982 film Koyannisqatsi: Life out of Balance, footage of the Pruitt-Igoe demolition is featured as an icon of emptiness and loss of meaning in modern urban life. Today, private developer Paul McKee intends to extend St. Louis’s record of black displacement by razing most of the city’s Northside to build his vision of a better St. Louis. Aiding him is a compliant government’s power of eminent domain that will allow him to force out any business owners or churches who refuse to sell their properties to him in the fair market. His efforts are encouraged by generous tax subsidies that negate whatever “common economic good” City Hall claims to justify this abuse of eminent domain. Meanwhile, McKee lets the properties he has already bought deteriorate, abandoned, creating the very “blight” that invites condemnation for the surrounding neighborhood.
St. Louis officials have demonstrated they prefer to sweep away “inconvenient” black communities that they feel block the way of progress. What rug will they be settled under next?