A new documentary looks at what happened after the city tore down 14,000 units of public housing.
For most of the 20th century, Atlanta was known for its public housing. The city had pioneered the concept in the 1930s, opening Techwood Homes as the nation’s first government-owned housing project in 1936. By the early 1990s, the Atlanta Housing Authority owned roughly 14,000 individual units across 43 properties, though more than 5,000 of these dilapidated apartments had been deemed uninhabitable by then. At the time, the city held the dubious title of having the highest proportion of its residents in public housing in the nation.
Two decades later, that proportion has fallen all the way to zero. Far sooner and far faster than other cities, Atlanta has systematically torn down its traditional brick and cinder block public housing projects, beginning in the lead-up to the 1996 Summer Olympics. Former residents received vouchers to help pay for privately managed apartments and houses, and the city made plans to replace its public housing stock with mixed-income developments, much of it through federal Hope VI grants or private investment. The last residents moved out in 2009, and the final property — the Palmer House high rise — came down in 2011.
Looking at these two decades of rapid residential change, Atlanta native and filmmaker King Williams is looking for an answer to a seemingly obvious question. With his in-production documentary The Atlanta Way, Williams asks: Where did all of these people end up?
Williams first became interested in the story of Atlanta's public housing reform while a student at Georgia State University, and he began capturing residents' voices on film the day after he graduated in December of 2007. His team is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to complete shooting and production on the documentary, which they hope to premiere on the seventh anniversary of the start of filming. Much of the footage has already been captured, and Williams says that his years of intensive work on the film in 2008 and 2009 helped him inadvertently catalog the demise of many of the city's largest and most significant public housing developments. “We didn’t know it at the time,” he says, but “we we were actually capturing those last days of public housing in Atlanta.”
Atlanta’s large-scale demolition of its housing projects was intended to spread low-income families out throughout the city and region. These efforts, leaders promised, would break up neighborhoods with clusters of entrenched poverty and high crime rates. Four years after the last residents moved out, it’s up for debate just how much these promises have been fulfilled.
Many in metro Atlanta assume that the city’s system of private vouchers has pushed former residents out to the suburbs, particularly the increasingly poor and increasingly non-white Clayton County to the south. But Williams’ efforts to track former public housing residents have shown this isn’t necessarily the case. “Everyone pretty much has this idea that’s really not grounded by facts,” he says.
Most of the residents that The Atlanta Way follows stayed within the city or the surrounding jurisdiction of Fulton County. Williams cites evidence from a 2011 study by Georgia States’ Deirdre Oakley, which found that most residents ended up in new places within, on average, three miles of their former homes. They also clustered in just a small fraction of the city’s census tracts, ones that remained much poorer than the city-wide average. For Williams, this shows that the ambitious goals of the demolitions and policy reforms haven't all been met. Crime rates may have gone down in some parts of the city, particularly places where some of the most dangerous housing projects once stood, but, he says, “in terms of mobility, in terms of those people having access to jobs? That really hasn't happened.”
The film highlights the story of Diane Wright, an activist and community leader in the former Hollywood Courts. As Wright told her interviewer, while standing outside of a closed-door meeting of the Atlanta Housing Authority, “They think because we live in the projects that we are the projects. We're human beings first and foremost, and we're residents who want to have something,” she explained. “If you're going to tear down a property and displace people, they should have the opportunity to speak out.”
Interview with Diane Wright, who lived in Atlanta's Hollywood Courts.
Today, half a decade after that meeting was captured on film, Williams and his team say they still don’t know where many subjects ended up, even activists like Wright who play a major role in their documentary. One of the major tasks for the final six months of production, Williams says, will be finding these characters again and telling their stories. “It is very difficult to find people even for us now, today,” Williams says. “For most people when they get the Section 8 vouchers, they move to other areas.” He’s heard through the grapevine that Wright has ended up on the south side of Atlanta, one of the top destinations for displaced residents.
Beyond these questions of migration, the documentary will catalog some of the successes and failures of Atlanta’s wholesale move away from public housing. Williams notes the case of East Lake Meadows, a project once so dangerous that it was known as “Little Vietnam.” East Lake Meadows was demolished early in the process, and investment from prominent developer Tom Cousins in the neighborhoods surrounding the nearby golf course helped make the revitalization a success. “For that particular instance,” Williams reflects, “It was a housing project that sat in the middle of really viable land.”
Part of the Kickstarter funds will be used to gain rights to use news footage on the demolition, like these above, in the final film.
Not everywhere has been so lucky. Williams says that many of the areas where he filmed in 2008 and 2009, including Bowen Homes, Bankhead Courts, and Hollywood Courts have not truly been revitalized. The land stands mostly vacant, turned into empty lots and makeshift parks where neighborhoods don’t really need them.
And for the places that have been redeveloped, Williams sees this as a story of gentrification, with all of the phrase's positive and negative connotations of revitalization and displacement. Williams, who has worked for filmmaker and outspoken gentrification critic Spike Lee, says the documentary gets back to the very roots of the word “gentrification,” dating back to the old systems of landed gentry in rural England.
The phrase "The Atlanta Way" was used throughout the 20th century to describe the processes of compromise between black and white elites, a negotiation strategy that prevented both total chaos and real progress for the city during the civil rights era. Williams heard this phrase over and over again from displaced residents, and he's come to think of the process of demolition and revitalization as one defined by this top-down strategy. "It's the idea of the gentry, the landowning class, or the higher ups making decisions which affect the lower ends," he says. "That's what's happening in Atlanta."
Top Image: The remains of the Roosevelt House, a former Atlanta public housing project, are seen after being demolished on Feb. 27, 2011 (AP/John E. Davidson).