Government-funded housing projects in the United States nearly all began with a common dream—to end urban slums and provide an affordable, safe housing option for low- to middle-income families. This dream has fallen so far that even many residents of some of the nation’s most infamous housing projects have called for their demolition. From gang violence to the robust drug trade to the incompetence of many local housing authority offices, large-scale government housing has seen some very dark days.Sadly, it’s the projects’ most vulnerable residents, the young and the very old, who suffer the most. They are the ones who get caught in the crossfire of racially segregated, poverty stricken, structurally flawed buildings—the ones who the system truly fails.
The infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project was erected in 1954, when racial tensions were rife across the US. The megalithic complex consisted of 33 11-story buildings that shadowed the city below. The apartments were originally intended for middle-class families but quickly degenerated into crumbling residences that housed only the poor African-American population of St. Louis.
In the late 1940s, St. Louis was facing a rapidly declining population. Many middle-class people were moving out, and poor residents inhabited their homes, causing slums to crop up all over the city. To combat this, the government decided to erect high-rise homes that would house 15,000 residents and do away with low-lying slums for good. The planning commission in St. Louis nicknamed the towers the “Poor Man’s Penthouse.” Rather than eradicate ghettos, these apartments simply became the city’s newest slums and a hotbed for crime.
Only a decade after they were built, the Pruitt-Igoe towers began to resemble an eerie and nearly empty hull. The occupancy rate dropped dramatically due to accidents caused by flaws in architectural planning as well as the ongoing crime and vandalism. The buildings were infested with rats and had faulty electric wiring. The elevators were designed to skip several floors to minimize riding time, causing the floors in between to become popular spots for muggings. Resident complaints included people urinating in the stairwells and elevators, clothes being stolen from laundry rooms, fights, trash thrown out of windows, and women being unable to move around the buildings alone for fear of being attacked.
By the 1970s, the government decided that the housing project was a failure and began to demolish the buildings on live television.
9 Jordan Downs
Watts, Los Angeles
Jordan Downs was built in the 1940s to house the many new workers arriving, predominately from the Southern US, for employment in factories to support the war effort. Many of the individuals who migrated to California were hoping to escape the segregation that was so prevalent in their Southern home states. By the 1960s, Jordan Downs was nearly 100-percent black, and by 1965, tension between whites and blacks reached a tipping point, resulting in the Watts Riots. The riots lasted six days and engulfed 130 square kilometers (50 mi2) in violence, culminating in 34 deaths, over 1,000 injuries, and the destruction and damage of 600 buildings. Sadly, this was not the last violent episode that the Downs would see over the following decades.
From 2000 to 2011, 25 people were killed in the complex. In 2006 alone, Jordan Downs experienced 19 gang-related shootings and seven deaths. The housing project is home to the Grape Street Crips, a South Los Angeles street gang that has claimed the Downs as its turf. In 2007, the gang’s stranglehold on the complex was such that a civil rights attorney who headed a project to support a Watts gang truce stated that if residents wish to move into Jordan Downs, they must get permission from the Grape Street Crips rather than the housing authority. Ironically, the complex itself resembles a prison, with 103 two-story buildings that are marked according to their building number. They sit atop brown patches of dirt and grass like massive concrete barracks.
Today, the housing project is home to about 2,700 residents, and the unemployment rate is around 24 percent. It’s very likely that one or more members of a family will be incarcerated in his or her lifetime. Things are looking up for the project, however, with a redevelopment plan in the works and the murder rate lower in more recent years.