Former residents of Charleston’s Triangle District, now paved over with interstates and a West Virginia American Water plant, may sympathize with a story centered on St. Louis, Missouri.
There, as here, a poor, black neighborhood, which had crime but also community, was denounced by power brokers and ultimately destroyed by them — with the help of government and in the name of “urban renewal” and progress.
The Rev. Matthew Watts, an activist on Charleston’s West Side, has promoted showings of “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” documentary in the Floralee Hark Cohen Cinema, below Taylor Books. The last showing is 7 p.m. Monday.
Kanawha County library cardholders can also see the film on the library’s new online film streaming service at kanawhalibrary.kanopy.com
Nowadays, the West Side has been portrayed in media as a bad neighborhood.
Watts and others in the black community there have been working with — often arguing with — the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority, a main entity behind the Triangle District’s destruction to improve housing on the West Side. CURA recently added a home purchasing and refurbishing program to its existing demolition program there.
The 2011 Pruitt-Igoe documentary, directed by Chad Freidrichs, describes how the city of St. Louis seized largely black “slums” through eminent domain and destroyed them as part of “urban renewal.”
In 1952, construction began on a possible home for the displaced: Pruitt-Igoe, a public housing complex of 33 high-rise buildings for 12,000 people.
But occupancy declined to 2,500. White people left St. Louis for the suburbs, leaving Pruitt-Igoe overwhelmingly black.
While federal dollars paid to tear down black neighborhoods and build public housing, maintaining that public housing using federal money was banned.
Poor blacks had been separated from their previous, supporting communities and faced strict welfare regulations, like one cutting off benefits for families if able-bodied men — even those looking for work — were found in the homes. The residents couldn’t fund upkeep.
“The bigger story is, in fact, the decline of the city overall,” urban historian Joseph Heathcott says in the film. “St. Louis lost half its population and had a devastated tax base and a drained economy over the course of 50 years from World War II even to the present. It’s no wonder Pruitt-Igoe declined in those circumstances.”
Two decades after building Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis began blowing up its buildings.
Vandalism and crime harmed the complex. But one black former Pruitt-Igoe resident, who eventually became a police officer, lamented its loss in the documentary.
Near the end of the film, Valerie Sills begins to cry as she recalls Pruitt-Igoe.
“It was our home, it was a good thing,” Sills says. “When I feel bad, I don’t intend to, but I dream about Pruitt-Igoe. And I always see myself standing in the window, looking out the window.”
Regarding Charleston’s Triangle District, in rough terms, the Elk River formed one side, Washington Street formed another and Capitol and Slack streets formed the third. Its destruction began in 1966 and ended in the ’70s
Last Monday, Watts hosted Emerson Reed, a leader of the protests against the Triangle District’s destruction, for a discussion after the documentary.
Reed said Charleston’s “urban renewal” and highway project “actually tore out the largest concentration of blacks in the state of West Virginia.”
“Where that interstate goes, up Piedmont Road, was all black: Black businesses, black pharmacists, black lawyers,” Reed said.
Getting help remembering schools and businesses from several people in the small audience, Reed noted other black areas lost to urban renewal, including the Charleston Town Center mall site.
Reed, when he was 19 or 20, led the “tent city” protests around 1969, when people occupied the now-American Water property in a failed effort to stop the Triangle District’s razing.
“Blacks from every walk of life, you know, people who lived there, people who lived in Chesapeake, Rand, they all came down to participate in tent city when we had marches and rallies,” Reed said. “It was old black folks, young black folks, everybody was of one accord. They had one focus, and that was to save the community.”
Watts, who grew up in Fayette County, said he “kind of stumbled across” the story of the Triangle District while reading “Black Past,” a book by James Randall and Anna Gilmer on the Kanawha Valley’s black history.
“I was kind of inspired by it, I said, ‘This may be the greatest show of solidarity in the history of black people, certainly in Charleston, maybe in the history of the state,’” Watts said. “They crossed socioeconomic lines to really fight together and take on the powers that ran this city, a far cry from what we see now.”
Now, Watts said elites and professionals are far removed from everyday people’s struggles, and churches lack solidarity.
Reed said the Triangle District’s destruction “totally discouraged black people — they gave up on the idea of fighting for anything here.”
He said “all of the money that is being allocated [to the West Side] is allocated to Elk City, and nothing to the black community.”
A part of the West Side immediately west of downtown Charleston has been rebranded as “Elk City,” and has seen new, white-owned restaurants and shops developed there.
The Pruitt-Igoe documentary ends by noting developers had begun buying up land around the now mostly vacant site, and plans for another renewal were circulating.
This screening was made possible in part by a grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council awarded to Nathan Tauger: " Residential Segregation in West Virginia, 1900-1968."