Framing a Modern Mess

On my first trip to St. Louis, a few wrong turns allowed me to experience an overview of the city’s history in the course of one day, as I passed the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the Cahokia Mounds, and Pruitt-Igoe. If Cahokia and JNEM represent St. Louis’ early history, Pruitt-Igoe represents the coda: here tenements, garages, lumber and junk yards were cleared for the construction of a promising, efficient and modern form of public housing – which failed spectacularly, was torn down, and abandoned to reforest. There is no historic marker for this so-called death of modernism – just a chain link fence, soil amended with concrete rubble, and a thriving forest.

Is Pruitt-Igoe a site where something once happened, or where something continues to happen? Since demolition, an urban forest has emerged with a mix of species adapted to St. Louis’ rocky limestone bluffs and invasive exotic species adapted to urban conditions. This project seeks to mark the site of Pruitt-Igoe, while revealing the process of reforestation – recognizing the site’s cultural and ecological value, and making it accessible and appealing to a broad range of users. Former Pruitt-Igoe residents could hold reunion picnics under the bosquet and visit the sites of their former homes; soccer players can continue to use the playing fields to the south and stay to explore the neighborhood’s history; school groups and scientists can study the urban forest’s growth, diversity and succession; entrepreneurs can create a nurs- ery for the propagation of hardy Pruitt-Igoe adapted trees and deliver them to vacant properties throughout the city.

Pruitt-Igoe is an important site in the city’s history of boom and bust, immigration, migration, renewal and vacancy. In its acres of urban forest and meadow, there are also seeds for the city’s future.

Melissa Elliott, with Elizabeth K. Meyer and Craig Barton at University of Virginia serving as faculty advisers