A few nights ago, I watched the movie "Koyaanisqatsi" (coy-an-is-kat-zee), a 1980s movie with no real plot, per se, but rather a collection of perfectly-shot scenes of modern city life, highlighting its banalities, ups, downs and in-betweens. All with a cyclical, brooding Phillip Glass soundtrack. (If it sounds weird, that's because it is.)
One of the climactic scenes involved the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, arguably the most infamous public housing projects ever built. It went up in 1956, and less than 20 years later, it was rubble. Now, it's an urban overgrowth forest in North St. Louis City.
Pruitt-Igoe was raised to give the desperately poor of St. Louis some decent place to live — the life of the poor, at the time, wasn't all that improved from the 19th Century. But as the population of the city sank, so did the quality of life at Pruitt-Igoe. People were unsafe. Some preferred even the streets to daily life in the complex.
I've noticed the term "public housing" being thrown around quite a bit when it comes to the Kemper Village debate, and it's sort of unfair. Pruitt-Igoe was public housing — 2,870 apartments worth. Kemper is low-income housing, catering to much fewer folks who need some help here in our community.
The eventual plan for Kemper Village isn't even low-income housing. Homes, over the course of a decade or so, will eventually be handed over to private owners, and a neighborhood association will form around that. Much like any other neighborhood.
Think of it as "a hand up" rather than "a handout." It seems pedantic to cite the tough economy, but it's important to note that the state unemployment rate is hovering about 8.2%, amongst other not-so-flattering statistics.
"Public housing" carries an unfortunate amount of weight about it. It stirs up imagery of Cabrini-Green, broken-down cars, crime, drugs and mean-looking people ducking down alleys at the sight of police cars. And, as Councilperson Kathleen Conway abruptly pointed out at Tuesday's council meeting, Kemper's not public housing.
It's a housing development that looks like any other suburban development. When you drive down Ashley and look out past Dollar General, do you see rising, brutalist towers blocking out the sun? Draconian condos from an Orwell novel? No. It's just houses.
Any public opposition to Kemper Village based around its "public housing" status is largely a fault of xenophobia and fear of the poor. It's unnecessary, defamatory and wholly incorrect.
Pruitt-Igoe and many other public housing projects were failures on many levels. For Kemper Village to get the same perception as them might not be the best idea, for an outside perception of Boonville, as well as the well-being of the future residents of the place.
Page 2 of 2 - For council members who decry Kemper Village as a waste of space on one of the best pieces of land in the city: it's a heck of a lot better looking than a rotting military school or a burnt-out building on Main Street.