Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Pruitt-Igoe and Penn South: What's Design Got to Do With It?

Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times's architecture critic, ran an interesting feature recently contrasting the fates of two urban renewal-era housing projects: Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and Penn South in New York City.  Pruitt-Igoe has become synonymous with the failures of urban renewal.  It opened during a time of great optimism in 1954, the product of Modernist ideology that urban pathologies could be solved with great design.  The structure was demolished in 1972 after it became a hornet's nest of drugs and crime.  Its vaunted design actually contributed to many of the building's social problems, thus delegitimizing the Modernist confidence in the ability of design to improve lives.  According to Kimmelman: "Critics of welfare, big government and modern architecture all used the project as a whipping boy."

Kimmelman reveals, however, that a very similarly designed structure, Penn South, has quietly prospered with little of the notoriety that has accompanied Pruitt-Igoe.  (I confess that I never even heard of Penn South until this article, and I lived in New York for many years and have spent much time studying urban renewal.)  So what accounted for the disparity: Penn South, unlike Pruitt-Igoe, was not public housing:

Two bedroom apartments cost $3,000 when the complex opened in 1962....

Steady income from maintenance payments and retail units in commercial buildings the co-op owned guaranteed Penn South a stable income. Tax relief from the city shielded it from escalating real estate values. Residents poured money into improvements. Repeatedly they declined the right to sell their apartments at market rates, preserving the ideal of moderate-income dwellings, adding facilities for toddlers and the elderly, playgrounds, a community garden and a ceramics studio.

Few people chose to leave, aging in their apartments, and in 1986 Penn South became the country’s first Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, or NORC. That’s an official designation for housing that wasn’t built for elderly people but is occupied by enough of them to become eligible for special grants.

Most urban renewal housing projects, like Pruitt-Igoe, were composed of rental units with strict maximum-income requirements.  Once your income got too high, you were out.  This ensured that housing projects stayed income-segregated.  The most successful and motivated would leave, taking all their social capital with them, leaving behind those least capable of rising out of poverty with no support system in place.  In this transient environment, residents had little incentives to make improvements to the property or to take steps towards forming any kind of community. 

Certainly, the success of Penn South should give us some pause before writing off the entire urban renewal era as an unmitigated failure.  It is worth taking some time to assess what aspects of urban renewal actually worked, and why. 

Ken Stahl

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