Thursday, July 14, 2011

White Walls, Apartheid (an aside)

American History X (1998); The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)

I often use the word "apartheid" to describe pre-Civil Rights America. I have, in the past, felt a bit uneasy in my appropriation of that word; after all it has a very specific meaning from a country with a very different history from the US. But after attending a screening of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth a couple weeks back, followed by a Q&A with the film's director, Chad Freidrichs, I no longer feel any unease what-so-ever. Apartheid was a uniquely hateful experiment intended to urbanize South Africa without allowing poor black families a place to live in cities. American apartheid was different in the details of its programs, but its intentions were similar enough and its effects just as destructive to the family life of those unlucky enough to have lived within it.

Freidrichs' documentary is a much needed corrective that digs below more obvious criticisms of the tower-in-the-park architecture that admirers of Jane Jacobs usually stop with (as if that were all she complained against), and delves into the institutional racism of government policies that disfigured a well meaning, and desperately needed, program to house the poor in this country in the wake of the Great Depression and WWII.

Former tenants of the projects describe how social workers would show up unannounced to check that no rules were being broken. Some were petty, for instance apartments walls could only be painted white. One tenant in the doc, whose mother painted a "blackboard" on their living room wall because she couldn't afford paper for her children to write on, remembered the terror that they would be evicted because of her mother's defiance. 

Some of the Housing Authorities rules were far more intrusive and destructive. Another former tenant whose family had been crowded into a four rooms before moving to Pruitt-Igoe remembers the price the family had to pay to move out of squalor: Families with an "able bodied" man were ineligible for housing assistance, so her father was forced to move out of state in order for her families to move out of shacks into the towers. Social workers actively patrolled the projects looking to find any men covertly living in the apartments.

For myself, I remember driving by the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green housing projects as a young boy in Chicago. I wondered why these apartment towers were in such bad condition while the tower my father lived was so well cared for. From my own experience I knew there was nothing inherently wrong with apartment towers, but I was young enough that I didn't fully understand the difference between rich and poor (I'm not sure I do now). I can remember explanations I was given. They were very similar (although much more empathetic in delivery) to those given over and over by white commentators in the film: that the tenants didn't know how to live in those sorts of buildings, that they were too poor to know better, and that they had moved directly from farms and didn't understand how to live in a city.

I haven't thought of these explanations in decades. While the adults in my life tried to explain political corruption and racism, as I got older, those early explanations stick out. I was glad that Freidrichs spent so much of his film debunking them. Explaining not only why the building deteriorated, but why tenants turned on them and began destroying what was there. The stories of people throwing bricks at fire trucks and police cars are identical to the stories I grew up with, but I have never heard them from the point of view of people living in the projects.

It wasn't a lack of understanding that lead to breakdowns in garbage removal; it was mismanagement. What would my father's building have been like if the garbage removal and other maintenance had stopped? If to live there families had to be split up? My friends and I were a bit wild. It is not hard for me to imagine our hi-jinx spiraling out of control if security guards and a few frightening fathers (mine among them) hadn't reigned us in. My dad scared my friends, not because he was stern, but simply because he was so big and formal in his manor. No part of me thought my family, who was not coming from the country, who knew how to live in a city, who were wealthy enough to know better, would have done any better than the families in the film.

For myself, had I been able to ask a question during the Q&A with Freidrichs I would like to know if any effort was made to interview the architect Minoru Yamasaki. So much blame for the failure of public housing projects has been heaped on the designs of architects like Yamasaki under the guise of postmodernism by political reactionaries like Charles Jencks, it would be great to hear what Yamasaki has to say now. I imagine Yamasaki might be gun shy when it comes to the topic of Pruitt-Igoe, but perhaps he will have a chance to see this film and feel more comfortable giving his side of the story now that the tenants have had a chance to give theirs. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth makes it very clear that the problem wasn't the architectural program, it was the neglect, incompetence and out-right malevolence on the part of authorities - from the jerks responsible for maintaining the incinerators, going right up to poison pills inserted in the original housing bills passed by congress.

There is a film is screening next month in Chicago. I might be there and hope I'll have a chance to see the film with an audience familiar with the same stories I grew up with.


  1. Most of Cabrin-o us gune nuw.. No high-rises und just a few low-risus.. Only a few uf those are occupiud..

  2. Yamasaki died many years ago. While you might ask him his feelings about public housing you could also ask him about the "demolition" of his most famous buildings, the World Trade Center.

  3. Uhg - Funny how memory works.I was so sure that I remembered Yamasaki was alive on September 11th and had discussed watching the towers collapse, but I had meant to check on that before posting. Now I think I am remembering that the tower's engineer was alive... but again still not sure. Thanks for the correction Peter.