November 5th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Finally! Sylvester Brown on Pruitt-Igoe

Sorry today's journal entry is so, so late - moderate panic attack. These things still happen. But it's a good thing that it did, because finally, months after it was promised, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Sylvester Brown delivered the key column in his on again, off again series on Pruitt-Igoe. For those of you not following what I've been writing about this from the beginning, Pruitt-Igoe was the biggest, most expensive government experiment in low-cost housing. It was begun in 1951, completed in 1955, and in 1972 the whole expensive high-rise complex was dynamited because the residents had so torn it up that it wasn't repairable or rehab-able. Anyway, not long after I wrote about this, basically asking, "What in the heck went that wrong?", StLPD columnist Sylvester Brown wrote a column on the subject himself. He hadn't read my article, but the thought was on his mind still after all these years ... because he grew up in Pruitt-Igoe as a small child, and couldn't figure out, himself, what had gone wrong. So he set out to talk to his older folks, and to people they referred him to, and to anybody else he could find who lived in Pruitt-Igoe or who dealt with it professionally, to see if from the emotional distance of more than 30 years later we can finally have a rational conversation about it and get to the bottom of what went wrong. Since then, he's dropped interesting tidbits and passed along some interesting interviews, but none of them came anywhere near an answer to that key question. That whole time, he's been promising us this one, datelined tomorrow's StLPD, "At Pruitt-Igoe, Crime Moved in Fast, Doomed Experiment."

It's still maddeningly vague. I hope someone holds his feet to the fire and makes him come back and explain what he means. But here are the relevant points, as far as I can extract them. These are my summaries, not his, and it's very possible that I've misunderstood what he said, so please, double-check what I've written below against the original article, linked above. But I need something to refer to, so here goes my summary of his incomplete analysis of the failure:
  • 1955: Pruitt-Igoe opens, and already bill collectors are scared to go in there unarmed, even ones who regularly collected from the same people before Pruitt-Igoe. Something about the complex makes them feel less safe.
  • 1955-1959: They were right. Because of AFDC rules prohibiting women who are married or who have live-in boyfriends, even unemployed ones, from receiving benefits on behalf of their children, the hallways and stairwells of Pruitt-Igoe fill up with jobless, legally-homeless, men. Brown attributes to these men a string of rampant robberies. The City Police chief claims, the whole time, that the per-capita crime rate in Pruitt-Igoe isn't any higher than elsewhere in the city, though. It's just that the same number of per-capita robberies all happening at the same address keeps that address fresh in people's minds.
  • 1959-1964: St. Louis city police step up patrols, and the complex hires a private K-9 unit. However, it is still legal to shoot fleeing felons in the US, and after seeing white cops shoot at fleeing black suspects too often in too short a time, the residents almost immediately mob the cops, stopping them from catching the robbery suspects for fear that there will be more gunfire. By 1962, the crackdown has had some effect ... that almost immediately starts to reverse. Brown doesn't say why, but it makes sense to me that after the 1959 protest against police shootings, more cops every day would conclude that if the residents don't want them to stop the criminals, why should they put their lives on the line? We are not told in the article that the complex got less policing, and less enthusiastic policing, over time. But that seems a reasonable inference to me.
  • 1964-1968: More and more residents flee the project if they can, because it's not safe. The heroin trade moves in to the abandoned units. OK, Brown just says "the drug trade," but I remember the times; the only drug trade that lots of people were getting shot over back then was heroin. A bad situation gets massively worse.
  • 1968-1972: Mob-connected black Congressman Bill Clay gets elected to his first term, and his signature political issue is that either the federal government absolutely must fund enough police in Pruitt-Igoe to shut down the black heroin trade, or they must tear it down. OK, Brown doesn't mention Clay's mob ties, but they're well known among us old-timers in Clay's district. I always wondered what the Mafia got out of Clay in exchange for their support; now I wonder if I know?
  • 1972: Bill Clay forces the issue with a publicity stunt. To prove his point, he hires three off-duty cops as (armed?) security and takes a Post-Dispatch reporter on a tour of Pruitt-Igoe. Despite federal and local government assurances that they were doing their best to police the complex, he is able to show the reporter ample evidence of rampant armed drug dealing on the property. Shamed, the federal government schedules the demolition.
So do I have the causality chain right here? Anti-marriage AFDC rules turned black men who were having a hard time getting employed into a homeless group, concentrated in one place and available to any criminal gang that needed manpower. Then the police pulled back out of disgust that the residents wouldn't let them shoot at fleeing felons. Eventually somebody noticed and put those unemployed black men to work, selling heroin out of that unpoliced location, which continued until the Mafia, tired of the competition, used one of their politicians to get the place torn down. Is that the final story?
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