Juan William Chávez, an artist and cultural activist, sees potential in vacant spaces. Since 2010, he’s been exploring the former site of the failed Pruitt-Igoe urban housing project in St. Louis, Missouri. Built in 1953, the development was riddled with poverty, violence, and segregation until it was eventually demolished in 1972. Over the years, a vast forest with diverse wildlife has sprouted in its place. But the site remains a historical scar on the landscape.
“Pruitt-Igoe has a lot of attention on the history, but that attention is usually about the violence or the modernism, or the actual implosion of the buildings,” says Chávez, who is originally from Peru and now lives in St. Louis. He considers the city his studio. “I was really interested in continuing that conversation, and seeing how we can take all that energy and reverse the current.”
In an effort to activate the local community around healing this negative chapter in the city’s history, he developed the Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary project. Its premise: to revivify the infamous space through beekeeping and urban gardening. To prepare, Chávez studied bees in public space at the Luxembourg Gardens in France, and went to Spain to see the first known cave art showing human interaction with bees. In 2012, Laumeier Sculpture Park featured an exhibition of his research as well as a sculpture that replicated the footprint of a Pruitt-Igoe building.
Also that year, Chávez launched a pilot version of the Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary project through his nonprofit Northside Workshop. Located in a small urban garden near the Pruitt-Igoe site, the pilot includes educational workshops to engage the community in beekeeping, urban gardening, and reclaiming neglected spaces. Chávez hopes to eventually take the project—an outstanding example of community-based public art, which Chávez referred to as public sculpture—to the Pruitt-Igoe site itself.
“Monuments on pedestals in parks serve their purpose, but public sculptures can actually be alive,” Chávez says. “They can be slowly developed right in front of you.”