Pruitt-Igoe: A Tribute to the Lived Experience

Bob Hansman is a Gephardt Institute Community Engagement Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor of Architecture in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. As Faculty Fellow, he serves as a resident expert on the St. Louis region, providing guest lectures and tours of St. Louis as a “divided city.” In addition to teaching studio and drawing courses, he developed a course called “Community Building, Building Community,” which brings Washington University students together with members of the Wellston Loop, Ville, Kinloch, and other neighborhoods to discover opportunities for shared personal and community involvement.

Pruitt-Igoe: A Tribute to the Lived Experience

On July 17, Bob published Pruitt-Igoe, a book that interweaves multiple perspectives and includes both iconic and seldom-seen photographs to flesh out the history of Pruitt-Igoe, a vast public housing project that was built on the near north side of St. Louis in the 1950s. Barely 20 years after construction, the 33 eleven-story buildings that made up the complex were razed, and the vacant land that was once home to thousands of people was gradually reclaimed by a dense, neglected urban forest. Bob shares powerful accounts of what happened in between, and in doing so, preserves some of the stories that are in danger of being permanently erased and lost, just as Pruitt-Igoe was.

When asked about his process for writing the book, Bob noted that he originally expected to have an external focus. “I had access to some of the building plans, as well as local advertisements and political cartoons about the site,” he said. “But when I looked at images, the people rose to the top. I started to focus on life within Pruitt-Igoe and saw that these images played against a simple narrative; Pruitt-Igoe started and ended with multiple narratives, some good and some bad. I wanted to resurrect the Pruitt-Igoe that the residents remembered.”

Bob explored local archives and found photos and stories on the “stuff that people had forgotten,” including the story of Kim Gaines and Kathy McClellan, two young girls who were found murdered in the Pruitt-Igoe complex. “They’ve pretty much been left out of every other account,” he said.  “To have the memory of these two little girls back meant a great deal to me.”

The photos Bob chose influenced the direction of his writing and vice versa, but throughout the book, he focused on paying tribute to the lives of the people within Pruitt-Igoe.

Learn more and purchase the book here.

Building Relationships in Community

Bob’s book is deeply connected to his work. His St. Louis Community bus tours provide a visual support to the narrative that he has shared for years about his involvement with City Faces and the neighborhoods of St. Louis. Students, faculty, and community participants visit the former Pruitt-Igoe site, along with other neighborhoods across St. Louis city and county. He explores the racial, sociocultural, and political context of the neighborhoods, showing the present and explaining the past in each place, and gradually drawing a larger picture that connects across time and space.

For Bob, community-based tours and courses are the first step in “unlearning what we’ve been taught” and establishing relationships in communities that we are often told to avoid or ignore. In his view, effective community engagement requires reciprocity and trust. He encourages students to be present in community, to listen, and to offer resources based on the needs of that community. His students often feel like they’ve received more than they’ve given when engaging in this way. “That’s just part of the territory,” Bob sums. “Don’t feel guilty. Just feel grateful.”

Learn more about Bob’s community bus tours here.