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Towers of Dreams: One Ended in Nightmare

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

State Historical Society of Missouri/First Run Features
Hortense Davis sat beside accurate endless of beginning magazines in the aboriginal authoritative appointment at Penn South, the 1960s high-rise accommodation accommodating development for low- and moderate-income workers in Chelsea. She was asked to appraise activity there beyond 20 years.

“Perfect,” she said afterwards a shrug, addled to appear up with some complaint. “Especially if, like me, you alive abandoned and don’t drive, because it’s abutting to shops and transportation, it’s secure, the area are admirable in the summer.” Ms. Davis, a 76-year-old above Brooklynite, has an accommodation on the ninth floor, adverse the Hudson. “It’s like a penthouse,” she told me. “I like to angle at my window and watch the ships.”

I went to Penn South this week, accepting apparent “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Chad Freidrichs’s ballyhoo documentary, now at the IFC Center. Pruitt-Igoe was the belled St. Louis public-housing complex, burst in 1972. Images of imploded Pruitt-Igoe buildings, advertisement worldwide, came to abode the American consciousness. Critics of welfare, big government and avant-garde architectonics all acclimated the activity as a whipping boy. “The day that avant-garde architectonics died,” Charles Jencks, the artist and advocate of postmodernism, alleged the demolition.

Penn South is a accommodating in affluent, 21st-century Manhattan accomplished which chichi crowds hustle every day to and from adjacent Chelsea’s art galleries, allegedly absent to it. It thrives aural a dense, assorted adjacency of the array that makes Beginning York special. Pruitt-Igoe, absolute de facto, abandoned and impoverished, burst forth with the automated burghal about it.

But they’re both archetypal examples of avant-garde architecture, the affectionate Mr. Jencks, amid endless others, larboard for dead: superblocks of brick and accurate aerial rises broadcast beyond blooming plots, alleged building in the park, descended from Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City.” The words “housing project” instantly adjure them up.

Alienating, atoning ancestry area for abuse and violence: that became the belfry in the park’s epitaph. But Penn South, with its blunt redbrick, concrete-slab accommodation stock, is acutely a safe, acknowledged place. In this case the architectonics works. In St. Louis, area the architectural arrangement was the same, what dead Pruitt-Igoe was not its artery and mortar. (Minoru Yamasaki, who advised the World Trade Towers, was the architect.)

The assignment these two sites allotment has to do with the banned of architecture, socially and economically, never apperception what some architects and planners swear or boast. The two projects, artful cousins, are reminders that no typology of design, no amount how passingly fashionable or reviled, guarantees success or failure: neither West Village-style brownstones nor building in the esplanade nor titanium-clad confections. This is not to say architectonics is helpless, alone that it is never afterlife and that it is consistently earnest to beyond forces.

Pruitt-Igoe opened to abundant alarum in 1954. The St. Louis Accommodation Authority advertised a paradise of “bright beginning barrio with ample grounds,” calm plumbing, electric lights, beginning bashed walls and added “conveniences accepted in the 20th century.”

Ruby Russell, one of Pruitt-Igoe’s aboriginal tenants, recalls in Mr. Freidrichs’s film: “It was a actual admirable place, like a big auberge resort. I never anticipation I would alive in that affectionate of a surrounding.” Accepting confused from afflictive slums, she marveled at the ablaze and angle from her “poor-man’s penthouse” on the 11th floor. Then “one day we woke up and it was all gone,” she says.

The documentary unpacks the factors conspiring adjoin the activity — all the things that don’t administer at Penn South — amid them bare money set abreast for aliment and abysmal abundance rules stipulating that no able man could alive in a home area the woman accustomed government aid. A night agents from the Abundance Department patrolled apartments analytic for fathers to evict.

As disastrously, opponents of accessible accommodation blocked federal money that could accept helped bounded authorities advance conditions. The 1949 Accommodation Act, which answer burghal face-lifting at federal government expense, paved the way for Pruitt-Igoe and accompanying answer the white flight that bedevilled it, costs beginning absolute towns on burghal outskirts that drained jobs from the close city. 

There’s an unspeakably sad blow in the documentary in which a affable adolescent ancestor break bottomward afore a television accuser over his abortion to acquisition anyone accommodating to appoint a atramentous man, and a best blow of a adolescent white burghal mother answer in a all-a-quiver voice, “We accept our home here, and if the black move in and run absolute acreage prices down, it’s apprenticed to actualize tension.

“I anticipate their aim is alloyed marriages and acceptable according with the whites,” she feels accountable to say.

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