Devin Thomas O’Shea
The true story of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Complex may never be fully declassified. But what we do know is this: it involves the unlucky architect of the World Trade Center, a lost stockpile of a hundred thousand baby teeth, and mountains of recently disclosed U.S. Army records that describe secret radiological experiments conducted on unsuspecting citizens in Minneapolis, Winnipeg, and St. Louis.
In 1952, construction began on a massive array of public housing high-rises in North St. Louis, Missouri. West of the Mississippi River and the city’s downtown, 33 tan apartment buildings were built to stand right next to one another like dominos, a “river of open space” between for playgrounds, parking, and parks.
Clearing 57 acres over three years of construction, Pruitt-Igoe was a herculean spending project in the name of urban renewal. Yet the towers wouldn’t last two decades. In 1972, three Pruitt-Igoe buildings were condemned and demolished, famously, on TV. The rest followed shortly after, televised on the nightly news, harkening the “end of modernism.”
The Pruitt-Igoe Housing Complex became a powerful cliché for Reaganite psychopaths who pointed at St. Louis’s failure to maintain the development as reason to nix welfare initiatives across the nation. As the story goes, “those people” didn’t know how to take care of things. They were dirty, and criminal, so why throw more money at them?
There’s much more to the story. Pruitt-Igoe was not proof of a Cold War logic; it did not display the “inevitable” failures of planned housing. It was an organized sabotage—and a clandestine site for radiological weapons experimentation. These studies were conducted on innocent and unconsenting civilians, who were mostly poor, mostly Black, and mostly women and children.
Like many urban renewal projects of the early 20th century, the purpose of Pruitt-Igoe was to halt the miasma of so-called “urban blight” that was devouring miles of city blocks in the Rust Belt. Since before World War II, African Americans had been migrating north, out of sharecropping economies into industrialized railroad meccas like St. Louis, a major boom town at the time. After the war, white downtowns emptied into the suburbs, abandoning the poor working class to slumlords and joblessness.
Urban planners like Harland Bartholomew believed St. Louis was on an endless roller coaster that could only go up. Like the infamous Robert Moses in New York, Bartholomew destroyed massive swaths of St. Louis’s historic neighborhoods in the 1950s, clearing a path for interstate highways at the expense of the Black community. Twenty thousand Black residents in neighborhoods like Mill Creek lost their homes and were displaced. Many ended up at Pruitt-Igoe—which, at first, seemed like a good thing. The city seemed destined to keep growing, and many wanted to move into the beautiful modern towers, into the “poor man’s penthouse.”
The construction of Pruitt-Igoe’s 33 high-rises was a staggering achievement in public works. As the narrator of the 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth says, the complex was “a modern break from the crumbling past that surrounded it.” But that surrounding past was also what doomed the site from the start—it was hemmed in on all sides by North St. Louis’s encroaching blight.
The towers were supposed to be segregated: Pruitt, named after a Tuskegee airman from St. Louis, held the Black residents, while the white half of the complex’s population would reside in Igoe, which took its name from a congressman. Tidy common areas greeted visitors; elevators whisked them up to their homes above the skyline. For some families, this was the first kitchen with a working stove, the first bed not shared with a sister or brother; the first room with a door of their own. No longer were mothers sleeping on cots in the kitchen.
Community organization was automatic. Residents held local-issue meetings in the basement activity rooms. Kids ran up and down the breezeways and played on the merry-go-rounds in between the buildings. For those who attained a coveted Pruitt-Igoe tenancy, their lives improved markedly, literally and figuratively rising above St. Louis’s dark, coal-ash slums. In Pruitt-Igoe, the poor had a better view of the city than many of the rich.
Yet circumstances were about to change. Partly as a result of St. Louis’s byzantine zoning laws, the city hemorrhaged taxpayers throughout the 1950s—civic money bled out into county suburbs, radically decreasing the demand for public housing.
The result of this white flight was that the planned white inhabitation of the Igoe section never materialized. And—unlike the progressive taxation funding base of British council housing, or the centralized financing that had underwritten developments like Red Vienna earlier in the century—Pruitt-Igoe’s sole method of maintaining the complex and its facilities was to extract rent from the tenants. The poorest of the poor would have to pay their own way.
“Residents in some areas of [St. Louis] noticed unusual activity in the days and nights throughout 1953 and into 1954,” Dr. Lisa Martino-Taylor writes in Behind the Fog, an examination of the United States’s Cold War-era radiological weapons programs. “Large puffs of a billowy powder were sprayed into the air by strangers in passing vehicles affixed with spray devices. The luminous powder lingered in the air behind the slow-moving vehicles.”
Medical science of the 1950s was still pervaded by the racist premise that there were great differences between Black and white bodies, including utterly wrongheaded notions like the assumption that Black people did not experience pain as intensely as whites, or that they were immune from heat sickness and diseases like malaria.
These preconceptions can be traced to antebellum racial ideologies, collections of pseudoscientific justifications that furnished a slave society with rationales for binding people of color to work in the fields. The perverse need to legitimate slavery as the natural state of things produced reams of this racist sophistry, working backwards from preconceived bigotry.
Long after the Civil War, that white supremacist streak persisted in modern science—including the clandestine science of weapons development, from experimentation with mustard gas during World War I to the Manhattan Project, which spawned the nuclear age.
Most associate the Manhattan Project with Oppenheimer, with Hiroshima, and with mushroom clouds over red deserts, but the program’s remit was more open-ended than the development of the bomb itself. One arm of Project research was studies on the effects of radioactivity on human bodies. This field proved a good career move for ambitious scientists looking to climb the ladder into lucrative positions and prestigious academic postings in chemistry and physics departments. A growing understanding of the lethality of airborne radiation inevitably raised the question: How can this be used as a weapon?
As the decades of the criminal malpractice involved in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments dragged on, the U.S. government continued to treat citizens as guinea pigs: the Cold War era saw scientific trials that involved injecting unwitting U.S. citizens with plutonium, and dousing San Francisco (and many other places) with test sprays of bacterial bioweapons. In 1952, the first open-air atomic fallout studies began in Minneapolis, just as construction was getting underway on Pruitt-Igoe. “Army researchers,” Martino-Taylor writes, “would release and then measure ‘cloud travel’ of the material and engage in ‘penetration studies’ inside residences and buildings such as the aging brick structure that was Clinton Elementary School in Minneapolis.”
It was the job of the Atomic Energy Commission to design and field test radiological weapons. “The first step,” wrote one R.B. Snapp in a 1948 Atomic Energy Commission memo, “should be contamination of moderately large areas with graded doses of selected materials,” whereby “materials can be delivered on the ground or as aerosol clouds in which case they would be effective when inhaled.”
The lies began immediately: brazen contamination of Minnesotans required a fanciful cover story. Minneapolis neighborhoods were canvassed by Army Chemical Corps representatives, who knocked on doors to inform the citizenry that the government was at work inventing a gigantic, billowing, city-sized cloud: a new defense strategy, they said, which would hide the city from Russian bombers, sparing it from nuclear attack. Billowing plumes of harmless fog would conceal important industrial sites.
When sprayer trucks prowled the neighborhoods casting out rolling tufts of soft, gray vapors, the people of Minneapolis, it was hoped, would feel a sense of security at the ingenious precautions of their benevolent government. In reality, the Army Chemical Corps was releasing a cadmium-zinc mixture into the air in order to measure how an atomic blast would disperse radioactive contaminants in an urban area.
The study was, among other things, poorly designed. Ground-level sprayer trucks were a dubious means of simulating the enormous clouds of particulates that are flung into the highest layers of the atmosphere by a nuclear blast. Questionable methodologies notwithstanding, similar tests were approved and conducted in Winnipeg, Canada.
However, the people of Minneapolis were not as gullible as the Chemical Corps had hoped. From Behind the Fog: “Field personnel encountered a considerable number of refusals to cooperate with requests for permission to locate sampling equipment in homes,” one report said. Citizens found ways of obstructing and tampering with the experiments, ultimately leading to the program’s halting in Minnesota.
The U.S. Army decided the next phase of studies would have to be clandestine.The Stanford Research Group, funded by the U.S. military, sent a man named Philip Leighton to Missouri to design a new set of open-air studies. This data, it was thought, would aid U.S. soldiers on future battlefields, when tactical nuclear explosions would accompany conventional warfare. “St. Louis was the Army’s closest match to the Soviet targets,” Martino-Taylor writes. The city had some geographical similarities to Moscow: a densely populated area with access to a large river. As detailed in a U.S. Army Chemical Corps document (NRC 1977b: 274; U.S. Army Chemical Corps 1953b: 27):
“[T]ests are planned at a Monsanto plant located in St. Louis proper, representing a large chemicals manufacturing complex; at the Socony-Vacuum refinery in East St. Louis, Illinois, representing a large petroleum refining complex; and at the Granite City Steel Corporation, representing a large steel manufacturing complex, including blast furnaces, open hearth furnaces, and blooming and rolling facilities.”
Experts were searching for targets with a high population density as well. “For example,” Martino-Taylor notes, “Kolpino, located in the Leningrad area near the Izhora River, was listed as a population target. Kolpino had major industrial facilities… [and] a concentration of tall concrete apartment buildings comprising of densely populated urban areas in which the U.S. Army expressed strong interest as an offensive civilian target.”
Cochran Gardens, Vaughan Homes, Pruitt-Igoe, and Carr-Square Village Apartments were all low-income housing blocks that conveniently fell inside Chemical Corps test zones. The historian Leonard Cole, a bioterrorism scholar at Rutgers, wrote that, “The testers theorized that poor people were less likely to object to strange happenings in their neighborhood, and if they did, the police would be there to control them.”
St. Louis military defense contractors like Wright City Steel and Monsanto Chemical received advance notice of the studies and were informed of their true purpose—information that was concealed even from the Mayor’s Office, which was led to believe the cover story about an obscuring cloud to defend from air attack. A false report to the same effect was planted in the St. Louis media: the military was testing out smoke screens, claimed the article, shielding the city from aerial observation. The press was made aware of the program but, “only a few small articles [about it] were printed during the period,” according to the Army Chemical Corps.
Study designer Philip Leighton tossed caution and scientific ethics to the wind, along with the scads of toxic particles. It was decided that the U.S. Public Health Service would release the chemicals—the agency had a more innocuous name that didn’t connote military science. The Chemical Corps would be tasked with measuring the radiation levels.
Soon, St. Louis residents began to report soldiers “dressed for germ warfare” patrolling the streets. Unidentified buzzing came from school rooftops, commandeered as emplacements for strange machines. Light poles in public areas like Forest Park were quietly outfitted with ticking boxes: sample collectors that would register fallout levels. All over the city could now be found sprayers, sensors, and all manner of mysterious equipment—installed on street corners, rising from bushes, and affixed to the rooftops of the 33 buildings of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project.
For forty years, the truth about these “cloud” experiments would be entirely unknown to the public. Not until 1994 was their true nature—and the extent of the danger they posed—revealed. Even then, it came to light only after Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt acquired files disclosing some facts about the program’s true nature.
The Clinton-era exhumation of those documents revealed that the experiments sprayed both a cadmium-zinc mixture and an additional fluorescent substance: a “harmless simulant,” a traceable chemical meant to simulate the radioactive debris of nuclear fallout. But Dr. Martino-Taylor’s findings, relying on the Army’s own documentation, indicate that this additional chemical was anything but harmless.
One of the compounds that was sprayed on the public was called “FP2266.” According to the Army documents, FP 2266 was “made by New Jersey Zinc (NJZ) Company and is now made by U.S. Radium Corp.”
FP2266 is a “military nomenclature,” Martino-Taylor notes, “generally representing a zinc cadmium sulfide mixture which notably does not exclude additives.” Although “FP” might stand for “fluorescent particle” or “fluorescent paint,” the acronym “FP” was also used in similar studies to signify radioactive “fission products” and/or “fallout particles.”
U.S. Radium Corp was infamous for its product Radium 226, a highly radioactive compound that sickened or killed many of the company’s female factory workers, who have made the history books as the cautionary workplace tale of the “Radium Girls.”
The Army took extreme caution with its equipment during the cloud experiments, outlining specific decontamination protocols—another hint that “FP 2266” might well refer not to innocuous paint but to lethal fission products. Philip Leighton noted that particle sizes of the material should be kept between 0.75μ and 3.0μ, “so small, the particles could probably be inhaled and deposited deep in the lung.”
Martino-Taylor believes that FP 2266 and Radium 226 are in fact the same compound. Still, there is no smoking gun here—these are “embedded experiments,” where levels of secrecy are used to firewall sensitive information. The available records still obfuscate what happened; so far, no document explicitly says that uranium, or strontium-90, was present in the sprayers installed around St. Louis so many decades ago.
That said—only a year after the St. Louis tests had concluded, the Army’s own principal investigator admitted that FP 2266 was “poisonous” and had “toxic effects.”
Why? The investigator’s verdict could be explained by the fact that aerosolized zinc and cadmium—which the military freely admitted to spraying—are lethal to inhale in their own right, making the sprays poisonous even without accounting for any mystery additives. Cadmium has a half-life of 30 to 35 years and can clog the kidneys, impair cognitive performance, lead to spinal deformation, and cause cancerous tumors. Philip Leighton certainly knew this in 1955—after all, cadmium has been known to be poisonous since the mid-1800s.
Whatever FP2266 was, it was added to an already-poisonous mixture, and from 1953 to 1954, that concoction was sprayed from vehicles outfitted with blowers, purposely dosing the public. Plumes of it were cast out of sprayers across St. Louis, and it fell in a fine particulate mist from the rooftops of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. Worth noting is that, at that time, 70% of the complex’s residents were children under the age of 12—and that this would not be the last government experiment visited upon the Black communities of Pruitt-Igoe.
By 1966, Pruitt-Igoe had become hell. “When one drives or walks into Pruitt-Igoe,” a local worker related, “he is confronted by a dismal sight. Glass, rubble, and debris litter the streets, the accumulation is astonishing… abandoned automobiles have been left in parking areas; glass is omnipresent; tin cans are strewn throughout, paper has been rained on and stuck in the cracked, hardened mud. Pruitt-Igoe from without looks like a disaster area.” To say nothing of the concurrent invisible disaster of its irradiation.
Deeply impoverished, increasingly segregated, and heavily vandalized—neglect worsened and crime rates rose because the complexes lacked the funds for repairs or security. Mice and roaches thrived. As the complex deteriorated, outsiders stayed away. The buildings were increasingly described as blighted, “breeding grounds for crime.”
The elevators sometimes stopped, and no one would come to save tenants trapped between floors. Former resident Sylvester Brown described how he and his brother would pull open the doors and climb up the cables to the next floor. The garbage incinerators were too small, and often broke down. Filth piled up around the chute and sometimes caught fire, which caused smoke to fill the elevator shafts. In the winter of 1968, when temperatures dipped below freezing, water lines burst in the Pruitt-Igoe buildings. The resulting flood froze—but as temperatures rose again, the ice thawed, and a sewer backed up, sending raw sewage bubbling up from underground. At this point, catastrophes such as these were a normal part of living in Pruitt-Igoe—avoidable disasters that were the result of neglect.
The poison pill in the housing contract was operation and maintenance. Impoverished tenants couldn’t afford the skilled repair people who were necessary to keep the buildings running. Spiraling costs drove residents out—by the end of the decade, rents had been increased three times in one year, creating an absurd situation in which low-income tenants were paying three-quarters of their wages to live in a dangerous public high-rise filled with burning trash, vermin, and—possibly—radiation.
On top of deteriorating amenities, policies imposed by the St. Louis welfare department had the effect of shattering the Black families of the projects. The service declared that “no able-bodied man” who was unemployed would be permitted to live in a unit if its female tenant was receiving aid for her children. There were male night staff at Pruitt-Igoe who were tasked with searching apartments for dads and boyfriends hiding in the closet or under the bed.
The system operating Pruitt-Igoe was inhuman; residents and social workers felt the disdain in this prison-like atmosphere. The welfare system seemed to use public money as a means of social and behavioral control, without providing any tenant protections in exchange.
Pruitt-Igoe’s housing was full of single mothers. As a result, strangers and outsiders would arrive and lurk around—men were back from the Vietnam War, and mothers were trying to make ends meet. Prostitution and crime rates furnished a pretense to further stigmatize Pruitt-Igoe in the public mind. To the media and everyone else outside its walls, the development was a symbol of the pathologies of Black crime, Black drug addiction, and Black violence, all of which was taking place with the Watts Riots fresh in memory.
But Pruitt-Igoe was not designed or operated by the St. Louis Black community. It was built to fail by the actions of white politicians and capital. Local banks and chambers of commerce were not keen on the idea of public housing to begin with, but construction companies enjoyed the large-scale federal contracts. They got one check for knocking down the slums, and another payday to build the high-rises. The 33 towers of Pruitt-Igoe were built tall, then, like their residents, neglected, damaged, and left to rot.
A second round of Army Chemical Corps “tracer” experiments began in St. Louis on May 27th, 1963—a time when Pruitt-Igoe was still in the early phases of its decline. At least forty-three open-air dispersion experiments were conducted day and night during this battery of tests. “Dosages,” Martino-Taylor writes, “were measured at several heights along the tether or a balloon flown at a single location, usually a park or a vacant lot.” This aerial data collection was a “special study” to measure what officials referred to as “fallout”: tiny particles with diameters less than 1.5 microns, small enough for lung inhalation.
Over one ton of toxic material was dispersed throughout St. Louis between May 1963 and March 1965. Army Chemical Corps personnel counted the radioactive airborne particles using equipment affixed to KMOX radio’s massive broadcast tower. More material was sprayed in the areas of Clayton, the Faulkner Roads, a Knights of Columbus building on South Grand, and a pond east of the St. Louis Science Center’s Planetarium in Forest Park.
The station release sites were 2.8 miles apart. “Appearing as central targets within the field of sampling arcs stood the imposing Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing Complex,” Martino-Taylor writes. Twenty-two thousand people lived in the targeted zone.
Much of the atomic cloud studies generated completely useless data; it was marred by bad design, and nonsensical collection methodologies. It appears that little was learned in the course of contaminating thousands of people in an American city. Perhaps the knowledge informed some post-nuclear survival strategy stored away in some Pentagon basement—but all available sources seem to conclude little to nothing of value.
Despite this, Philip Leighton went on to become a powerful scientist. He served as chairman of Metronics, formerly the Stanford Aerosol Lab, which processed data and assisted in the 1960s cloud experiments. He was a veteran of the military operations Buster-Jangle and Plumbbob: atmospheric nuclear detonation experiments that exposed between 6,500 and 9,000 military personnel to radiation, and produced some astounding video. In the iconic video of these tests, soldiers are ordered into foxholes with no protection other than goggles. A nuke is set off in the distance, and the troops are ordered to march toward the mushroom cloud, seemingly just to see what happened. (The contamination of Americans by the U.S. government via nuclear tests, of course, has its own sordid history, just as deadly and contemptible as the spray tests.)
All of this work earned Leighton the title of president at SRI, a research organization established by the trustees of Stanford University. He was also the chairman of the Stanford University chemistry department, a colonel in the Army Chemical Corps, and, we can safely say, a callous practitioner of unethical science.
Leighton was elevated to the heights of the scientific world because of his willingness to experiment using the real world and real people as a testbed. Whatever whispers of conscience he may have felt were ignored for the sake of his ambitions. His legacy will truly be a lasting one: not only in his career, but by the persistence of radioactive particles that will not decay for hundreds or thousands of years.
In February of 1969, a rent strike swept through Pruitt-Igoe. It was the first of its kind in American public housing—a last-ditch attempt by residents to claim power over their homes. But it was too late. The strike was unsuccessful, and the housing authority began closing buildings, further worsening conditions. Copper wire was stripped, and so many windows were broken that, from the street, pedestrians could see right through the high-rises to the sky on the other side, as if wearing X-ray specs. Drug operations set up shop; the complex had become a haven for dealers, in part because rooftop lookouts could see a squad car coming a mile away. But that didn’t really matter—the police would claim they were too afraid to enter the buildings anyway.
Pruitt-Igoe became internationally famous in 1972 when the first project was dynamited on national television, christening this, the “death of modernism.” In 1951, it had cost 36 million to construct Pruitt-Igoe—the equivalent of 443 million in 2022. The buildings had been designed by modernist architect Minoru Yamasaki, one of the masters of New Formalism. For Pruitt-Igoe he had chosen to employ a style called “internationalism.”
In addition to Pruitt-Igoe, Yamasaki also designed the Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Yamasaki had wanted to include a modern sprinkler system in the center, but his designs were curtailed by the Department of Defense. One year after the first of the Pruitt-Igoe towers were demolished, in 1973, Yamasaki’s Personnel Records Center burned out of control for twenty-two hours, destroying the only copies of some 16 to 18 million official military personnel records. A safe on the sixth floor had contained high-profile documents, including the Navy file of Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and the record of Adolf Hitler’s nephew, William Patrick Hitler.
Then, in 2001, Yamasaki’s third large-scale work was destroyed—his “beacon of democracy,” the World Trade Center.
That same year in St. Louis, something pretty strange was discovered in an old ammunition bunker at the Tyson Research Center. Tyson Research stored radioactive material on behalf of the Department of Defense. In a forgotten storage area, researchers came across a bizarre stockpile: thousands of human baby teeth. Each set of teeth was stuffed in an envelope. Attached to each was a small notecard that had been filled out by a parent.
Macabre and inexplicable as the find may have seemed at first, the teeth had been amassed for wholly rational reasons. Around the same time as the atomic cloud tests in St. Louis, an organization called the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information partnered with Washington University and St. Louis University on a multimillion-dollar federal grant to conduct the St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey. Its aim was to collect and study 320,000 baby teeth from St. Louis’s youngest citizens, their teeth sent in by their families.
They were looking for strontium. Why? As outlined in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Strontium 90 was ending up in pastures and fields, in grass consumed by goats and cows. It worked its way up the food chain into children’s milk. And because the chemistry of strontium 90 is similar to calcium, it was taken up by bones and teeth.” Decades down the line, fallout from nuclear tests in Nevada, including projects Leighton worked on like Operation Plumbbob, was poisoning American youth.
The baby tooth survey is now heralded as a catalyst for the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which barred nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere. St. Louis’ baby teeth were, indeed, packed with radioactive metals. The study found that children who grew up at the height of the Cold War in 1963 had 50 times as much Strontium-90 in their teeth as children born in 1950.
Another possible candidate for FP 2266 is Strontium-90 itself, with its half-life of 29 years. Strontium was the subject of study for the Atomic Energy Commission’s Project GABRIEL, a comprehensive survey of biological exposure to the isotope due to nuclear weapons testing, much like the associated story for the Baby Teeth Survey. Project GABRIEL and Project SUNSHINE examined alfalfa, dairy products, thyroids from human cadavers, and stillborn fetuses that had been “collected” (or stolen) from around the world.
The Baby Teeth Survey has never been definitively linked to the atomic cloud studies—which are not widely known in general—and the fact that St. Louis is home to some 33 Superfund sites could explain the irradiation of the teeth by other means. Still, it’s difficult to ignore what a hotbed St. Louis was for radiological activity in the 1950s. Philip Leighton’s first open-air tests were riddled with data collection problems, so the extent of the contamination is difficult to assess. But the baby teeth, if they were irradiated by the atomic cloud tests, are durable samples that would make for strong evidence of radiological contamination that seriously affected the population.
While the real extent of the damage may never be known, many of the children who grew up in Pruitt-Igoe are still alive, and face the likely consequences of these histories to this day. “Nearly every funeral I had gone to [among former residents] was a cancerous death,” Benjamin Phillips says in Target: St. Louis, a documentary on the atomic cloud studies that draws on Dr. Martino-Taylor’s work. Phillips is a former city marshal seeking a class-action lawsuit in St. Louis Circuit Court. “They should have come out and said we put this cadmium sulfide in the air.”
The acres around Pruitt-Igoe remain undeveloped today. They are fenced in, overgrown with brush. The empty lots have become dump sites for old tires and broken washing machines. The popular narrative still says that the people who lived in those towers were degenerates who couldn’t care for themselves or their home, that public housing was communistic and a failed endeavor. So tear it down, and let it be every man, woman, and child for themselves. We should recognize that narrative for the bullshit that it is. After all, this is one of the most reliable, time-tested strategies by the enemies of public programs: drain a social service of funding, impede its functioning at every turn, and then harp on the inevitable problems as evidence of the foolhardiness of attempting to provide free and universal services to the people. Paint it as a failure of the concept of public aid itself, instead of an act of sabotage.
What is left in St. Louis are unanswered questions, and unknowns that extend further still. The Army’s documentation alludes to “certain special tests,” still unidentified. “Thus,” Martino-Taylor writes, “an unidentified set of additional covert test in St. Louis was conducted by the Army Chemical Corps, SRI, and Ralph Parsons Company that rose to a classification level higher than ‘Secret.’”
Ralph Parsons Company—now Parsons Corporation—is a defense, intelligence, security, and infrastructural engineering firm headquartered in Centreville, Virginia, down the street from the Central Intelligence Agency.
A lot of data from these studies has gone missing; discarded by the Army and other entities. Nothing you need to worry about. At one point in her research, Dr. Martino-Taylor traveled to California to put in a copy order for boxes of Philip Leighton’s papers. She had hoped to find that his files contained more information on the St. Louis experiments. Instead, Stanford University pulled the collection the very next day. As of 2022, the materials remain in the possession of Stanford’s general counsel, closed to the public.
Millions of American citizens were exposed to the atomic cloud studies and related operations. The Black community of St. Louis made for an ideal testbed. It was already a social write-off, part of the larger project of dispossession and displacement underway nationwide via what was deemed “urban renewal.” Whether or not radium or strontium was present in the St. Louis mixture, one fact is clear: that military scientists, whatever they chose to unleash, had first decided that North St. Louis was politically powerless enough to become a laboratory for human experimentation.
Last century’s conspiracies are only now becoming intelligible. Radioactive particles are particularly difficult for humans to understand—they are invisible motes of energy that exist on timescales the human brain isn’t built to imagine. Their long half-lives mean that their effects will ripple out for ten thousand years. As do the choices that are made at the behest of power and profit—for example, continuing to pump carbon into the atmosphere at a rate that will destabilize it for unfathomable lengths of time. Who knows what kind of mistakes today are being made in the name of science.
One relic of this betrayal of Black families will be the cancer hot spots that persist in St. Louis. Yet even beyond the local harms, in more abstracted ways, the sabotage of Pruitt-Igoe ripples across history. Public housing and grand public works were not always so toxic in American political discourse. The concept of giving good things to poor people had to be propagandized away; it had to be tarnished on the nightly news, clamoring about crime and acting aghast at Pruitt-Igoe’s decay. It is common sense to give poor people good homes. A place to live has knock-on effects for escaping poverty, addiction, health issues, and all manner of maladies. In a decent and functional society, housing for all would be a given.
The cloud experiments themselves—non-consensual trials conducted on an oblivious population—are yet another generational sin, one among so many of the empire’s crimes. The scientific community, conspiring with the U.S. military, seized upon social apparatuses that were meant to house the most vulnerable and rendered them collateral damage in a quest to acquire new powers of death, to weigh the consequences of atomic warfare that itself would be a crime against all humanity.
The history of St. Louis’s public housing does not have to be the fate of all. And yet we will be denied a fuller picture of that history as long as Phillip Leighton’s reams of documents, notes, and papers—fifteen linear feet of them, in fact—have been sequestered away, protected by Stanford University, in the way that power protects itself.
Reparations, it seems clear, should be at the very opening of any conversation about trying to right these wrongs. Medical care and housing would be the least we could do for the grown victims of Pruitt-Igoe and its descendants—and for the rest of the country. Pruitt-Igoe, however remarkable a story, however grievous a wrong it may be, is far from alone, among all the histories of the working class and the people of color who have suffered the crimes of capital and power.♦
Devin Thomas O’Shea’s writing is in Slate, The Nation, Chicago Quarterly Review, Jacobin, and elsewhere. @devintoshea on Twitter, @devintoshea on Instagram.