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The woods at Cass and Jefferson avenues have had 40 years to overwhelm the concrete where homes for thousands of people once stood.

A newcomer might mistake it for a park, but that green overgrowth covers what many point to as “Exhibit A” in urban housing policy failure and the decline of St. Louis in the latter half of the 20th century.

Since 1976, the vacant Pruitt-Igoe public housing site has served as a reminder of the abandonment many north St. Louis neighborhoods experienced as residents and capital moved elsewhere, a conspicuous bit of foliage in a part of the city where crumbling houses and vacant lots often outnumber the houses kept standing by those who remained.

But for the first time in decades, a private investor owns the land.

After years of holding an option to purchase the 34-acre property for a little over $1 million, Paul McKee finally exercised it this month, acquiring the property from the city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority. The man behind the ambitious Northside Regeneration project plans to make it the “crown jewel” of his development northwest of downtown, an “urban village” with offices, a hotel, retail and a medical campus with a three-bed hospital.

Long a neglected patch of ground on the city’s struggling North Side, the Pruitt-Igoe site’s stock rose this year with the federal government’s decision to build the new western headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency directly across Cass Avenue.

When the spy agency revealed it wanted to move from its longtime home on the south St. Louis riverfront, Pruitt-Igoe was originally part of the land McKee and the city pieced together to offer as a new home for NGA. But the parcel was later dropped from plans as NGA settled on using 100 acres north of it, leaving it as prime real estate for future development, surrounding what is anticipated to be a massive federal campus.

McKee, in an interview, said development on the Pruitt-Igoe site will coincide with his plans to build some 500 housing units to the north and east of the $1.75 billion NGA campus, filling in empty lots and replacing dilapidated structures on the parcels of land he has slowly amassed over more than a decade.

Perhaps more importantly than serving as a commercial anchor for the redevelopment planned for the area, McKee said the Pruitt-Igoe site will again make use of what has become a symbol for the decline of the area and St. Louis as a whole.

“It’s like a blinking light for everything that’s been wrong with St. Louis,” McKee said of his new property. “It’s a symbol of ‘tear it down, let it sit and don’t worry about it.’”

Darryl Piggee, one of McKee’s lawyers and the former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, said the promise of jobs and the redevelopment of the long-dormant site will send a message to the region.

“I don’t even know how to measure what this means,” Piggee said. “It could almost be a holiday … You can’t overestimate the effect it’s going to have on north St. Louis. It means that there’s hope, and there’s progress again for all of north St. Louis.”

Tragic symbol

The story of the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects is well known throughout the country and the world. The complex of high-rise public housing towers built during the federal government’s postwar public housing initiatives were supposed to alleviate poverty by clearing slums and giving the poor working utilities and clean accommodations.

But the 33 11-story towers that opened in the 1950s were built for growth in a city that was destined to shrink. Residents headed to the area’s suburbs, and the city lost half its population over the coming decades. Whites left the housing project after it was ordered integrated. The city’s housing authority, dependent on tenant rents for revenue, couldn’t afford to maintain the buildings as vacancy rates rose.

And federal housing policies effectively split up families, keeping fathers out of the project because they were able-bodied men who supposedly could find a job and didn’t need government help.

By the 1960s, Pruitt-Igoe became a symbol of the urban blight it was supposed to solve, and, in many people’s minds, demonstrated it was a problem that couldn’t be fixed by misguided government programs.

For St. Louis, Pruitt-Igoe, which opened for all races but became almost exclusively a black housing project, was and still is a symbol of the region’s racial divide. In 1976, the last tower was razed, and the trees have been growing as the neighborhoods around them declined.

It’s a history and a lesson St. Louis shouldn’t soon forget, said Michael Allen, a local preservationist who several years ago launched the project “Pruitt-Igoe Now” to solicit ideas for how to reuse the land.

“Pruitt-Igoe definitely needs to be marked for the good of St. Louis,” Allen said. “Right now, with Ferguson, that history’s on our minds. But there always comes a time when we forget these things.”

Bob Hansman, a professor at Washington University who is writing a book about Pruitt-Igoe, agrees that whatever McKee ends up building there should include some sort of marker or memorial. What if the development incorporated the remnants of Dickson Street, one of the old complex’s main roads, into its design? Or a streetlight from the original housing project that was left intact?

Memorials about painful things can be powerful reminders, Hansman said. No one wants to tear down the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot just because it’s painful.

“Pruitt-Igoe had international significance,” Hansman said. “If it was framed properly, I mean physically and metaphorically, it would have a lot of meaning.”

It still has a lot of meaning for Robert Green, 62, who moved into the complex with his family in 1964 and grew up there, leaving in 1974 when he was 20 years old.

“When I was there, there was a lot of death, a lot of murders,” Green said.

He still walks to the site from his nearby home, which will soon be right next to the new NGA campus. He still gets nervous when he walks through it, his old instincts kicking in, worried he might be the last person to be murdered at Pruitt-Igoe.

“It’s similar to an Indian burial ground,” Green said. “So many of my brothers and friends died on that ground ... I never wanted to see it redeveloped.”

He always considered it “sacred ground” that would make a good site for a park. But he knows that’s an unlikely use now that there’s a major “anchor” going in next to the site. Something creative, Green hopes, could be included.

Paul Fehler, a St. Louis Democratic Party committeeman and the producer of “Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” a 2011 documentary about the housing project, hopes other residents like Green can be consulted about some sort of memorialization. It touched a lot of lives in St. Louis, for good or bad.

“The only consideration I have in evaluating the use of Pruitt-Igoe is that large numbers of residents, large numbers of former residents, be involved in that decision in more than just a tokenistic way,” Fehler said. “Almost everyone who lived (in that area) in that time had a cousin or an aunt or someone who lived there themselves. There’s a lot of emotional import invested on that land.”

Changing attitudes

Many of McKee’s plans could be a long way off. He’s still waiting to finalize designs for the buildings, which, for security reasons, will depend on NGA’s final design.

The leftover debris from the housing towers and demolition debris dumped there will have to be cleared off, McKee said, and he plans to apply for Missouri Brownfield Tax credits to help finance the cleanup.

McKee’s plans for the land aren’t the first in recent years. Former Mayor Freeman Bosley famously wanted a golf course. Others pitched homes and a grocery store. A world trade center and 50-story tower was one of the more speculative plans, hatched by an engineering firm in the 1980s.

But McKee seems to have more momentum now that NGA is on its way, and he’s made clear he is serious by actually purchasing the Pruitt-Igoe land. For his housing development he has brought on Telesis Corp. and CRG Real Estate Solutions to build the homes, and he has financial backing from the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust.

Earlier this year, Pruitt-Igoe received the necessary zoning for development. It also got a “no further action” determination from the Environmental Protection Agency, which means development on the site is all right as long as it’s not residential.

McKee says he hasn’t changed his pace – he’s been working for years on the Northside project. But he believes the region and its residents, and those in the Northside area, are more on board than they ever have been.

“The community is now seeing it differently,” McKee said.

Moving forward on Pruitt-Igoe should signal activity in an area that has seen little development recently, and the city hopes “the entire area is transformed,” said Otis Williams, director of the St. Louis Development Corp. He’s hopeful McKee can help.

“We think he has brought to the table some major partners,” Williams said of McKee.

If development does indeed move forward in the area, Allen, the preservationist and St. Louis historian, says Pruitt-Igoe won’t stop being symbolic.

“St. Louis’ attempts to reassert its greatness fell pretty mightily in the postwar era,” Allen said. “The reality is that we did lose that status. The towers fell, population fell and a lot of the city would fall empty as well ... The story of Pruitt-Igoe as a piece of land is not all that much different than a lot of other pieces of land in the city.”

Because like a lot of abandoned properties in St. Louis these days, there is again new interest.

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