photo: Atlanta's East Lake Meadows housing project, which opened in 1970
Atlanta's East Lake Meadows housing project, which opened in 1970, was demolished three decades later. Walter Stricklin/Atlanta Journal Constitution/PBS

The new PBS documentary film from Sarah Burns and David McMahon chronicles the fall of an Atlanta housing project through the residents who once called it home.

Beverly Parks grew up in a house in Atlanta in the 1960s, where she and her siblings took turns sleeping in one bed. Huddling in the living room during the winter, she’d take a breath and see the frost hang in the air. But in 1970, her family moved into the East Lake Meadows public housing development, and things changed. For $45 a month, her mother could afford a three-bedroom apartment.

“When you come from an environment of no food, no heat, cold, to a housing project, that was just like heaven to us,” she said.

The images of East Lake Meadows that linger in history books don’t look like heaven: Nicknamed “Little Vietnam” within a year of its opening in 1970, it was one of the many American public housing projects cast as dysfunctional when crime, drugs, and government disinvestment — both intentional and negligent — tore through the property in the 1970s and ‘80s. Today, the neighborhood is unrecognizable: In 2000, the development was demolished and rebuilt as a mixed-income project. The original residents were promised they could return, but most were displaced.

In the new PBS documentary East Lake Meadows, directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon and produced by famed documentarian Ken Burns, those former residents help trace the trajectory of East Lake Meadows with candor, revealing what made it such a special, and eventually, after years of negligence, such a horrible place to live.

Like the 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which centered on a St. Louis public housing project made famous in videos of its decline and subsequent implosion, East Lake Meadows uses the history of one development to explain the calcification of segregation in America and the damage that’s done when divisions are drawn between a “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Along with former residents, the film features a who’s who of contemporary voices on American inequality, such as New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah Jones and historian/New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb. The feature film, which premiered on PBS this week and is available to stream online, also serves as a powerful call to action: The reason some public housing failed was not because it has to fail, but because there was a lack of will to make it succeed.

“We could do this better. We could provide decent housing to the people who need it most,” said Burns, who also co-directed the 2012 documentary The Central Park 5. “Ultimately that’s the message of the film: We could be doing this, we just have to decide we want to.”

CityLab spoke to Burns and McMahon by phone — their tour to promote the film was cancelled because of Covid-19 concerns, so the couple and their son were staying in with family in South Carolina.

The documentary used one distinct public housing development to tell such a sweeping story. Why did you choose to highlight East Lake Meadows?

Sarah Burns: We originally learned about East Lake because we’d been told about the new community there — the narrative that is out there about all the successes of the new community, and how much things have changed. But we immediately recognized that that was a really incomplete version of the story, and that in order to think about this place that’s there now, it was much more important to consider the place that was there before.

David McMahon: It felt like in this case that people who had a vested interest in the success of the place had been the ones who put the story out there. And it is an extraordinary success story in certain ways; as Ed Goetz says in the film, you could hardly believe you could remake a community to the extent that they did. But it was just a little digging and we discovered that it wasn’t [a success story] for the people who had been living there when it was East Lake Meadows.

Why Atlanta?

Burns: While Chicago has been the focus of much of the academic research and writing about public housing — certainly a theme is places like Cabrini Green — because of Atlanta’s history of being the first city that started building these federally funded housing projects in the ‘30s, and then being so aggressive beginning in the ‘90s with tearing it all down, it was actually a great place for telling these stories.

We felt like in some ways we could have chosen any housing project and that we would have had stories from residents that we would have been able to explore many of these same issues. When we were sharing the film with public housing residents in other cities, people have found that they recognize something in these stories — that they can relate to those experiences and feel in some way that it’s their story too.

How did you find so many former residents of East Lake Meadows?

McMahon: The tricky thing was that a lot of people did not come back: It was 20 years since the original housing had been bulldozed.

When they were in the 4th, 5th and 6th grade, in the late ’90s, they’d begun doing video diaries of the experience of watching their housing come down around them — their teacher had given them cameras and told them how to use them. The teacher eventually made the video diaries into a feature-length documentary which premiered at a local library.

We tracked the students down using a private investigator. It took months. Some of them gave us on-camera interviews, but they were there at the very end — they had 9- or 10-year-old’s perspectives. They weren’t going to be enough.

So we started, at the suggestion of our colleagues, a Facebook page. After a couple of days, something like 1,500 people had come to the page, all eager to share their memories: Many of them remained connected. In some cases [they left] in the late ’70s — after saving enough to buy a house; in other cases it was under, eviction or leaving with the sense that the housing was coming down and there was nothing left for them, in other cases it was a Section 8 voucher. We were trying to show there were a lot of outcomes over the years.

Burns: So many of the people we talked to said, “Are you going to talk about the good stuff, too?” Even the idea of that was really important to people. They recognized that the way their community had been portrayed, to the extent that it had been, was always with this focus on the “Little Vietnam” aspect of it — the crime, violence, the drugs, the problems. It was really important to so many of the people we talked to that that not be the only thing that was covered, because that had been very much their experience so far.

And people were not shy about telling us about that stuff too: They weren’t saying that that wasn’t the case. That there was crime and violence and it could be scary, especially for people who were parents there, the ways you try to protect your children. But that also there were also happy memories, and ways that people came together.

McMahon: Everyone talked in one form or another about how they were able to keep life moving there in the absence of services that other communities are provided or the businesses that we take for granted that grow around all of the communities that are not abandoned.

One of the most compelling figures was Eva Davis, a resident of East Lake Meadows and a fearless tenant leader who’s described by her granddaughter, Evette El-Amin, as a “fiesty young old lady.” She’s the one who, by the end, convinces many tenants that demolishing and rebuilding East Lake Meadows is the only realistic way forward. How did you find her story? Were there other examples across the country of these strong matriarchs who led movements in public housing?

McMahon: Eva Davis had died a year or two before we began production, and we found her family and her passing was very raw for everybody. It was not only the family. Everyone had something to say about Ms. Davis. She had impacted everybody’s life there. And certainly across Atlanta and I think well beyond, projects have tenants’ association leaders, they’re often women and they often have political clout. They often are dealing with problems as diverse as how do we get people to stop buying drugs on our corner to how do we get a toilet fixed in the third building in 3C. All day long she was advocating for these people.

Eva Davis at East Lake Meadows in September 1986. (Louie Favorite/ Atlanta Journal-Constitution/PBS)

[Before moving to East Lake Meadows, Davis] comes up from a rural area south of Atlanta and gets engaged in civil rights actions there and really cuts her teeth marching with the ministers in Atlanta at the height of the civil rights movement. She’s a perfect person to begin organizing the tenants; she could get 400 people out to vote if the city councilman who represented the district was there to support them. She was a bulldog, as one of her daughters says. Ms. Davis is totally unique. Yet a lot of these spaces have a “Ms. Davis,” and often it’s “Ms.”

The film outlines a forgotten origin story of public housing, which was first marketed and intended as a home for “respectable,” middle-class-presenting, low-income white people. In the 1930s, for example, Atlanta bulldozed an integrated neighborhood to build Techwood Homes, a public housing development that was made for white families only. Why is that history important, and what does it say about public housing?

McMahon: There’s an evolution across the years of who we think deserves public housing. When [the U.S.] began public housing, we had identified a class of people, white people largely, who had fallen from the middle class in the Great Depression and perhaps lost their housing. It was thought we could give them a step back to the middle class. In designing it, they had to do it in segregated terms. With the societal trends of white flight and white people leaving the city [in the 1950s and ‘60s], there was a loss of a tax base, a divestment, a lack of commitment to [public housing]. That really happened when it was exclusively black and brown people.

Burns: The reason why we need to cover that history was both to know how different it was in the beginning, and that different intent, but also to understand that we can do this well. The image you get of public housing in the media over the last decades is the one of the Cabrini Greens, the East Lake Meadows, the Pruitt-Igoes — these large public housing projects serving an extremely poor community, frequently one that is majority African American in population and that is challenged in many ways with crime and drugs. That’s what we see on the news and that’s the sense we walk away from of what public housing is. It comes to define the whole of public housing.

Over the years it’s been done in different ways. There have been times when we have funded it and taken care of it and provided solid buildings that actually provide decent housing. There was a time when this served a different purpose — that it served fairly well the people who lived in it, that it was safe and decent housing, and that it did help people as a sort of stepping stone. It was a different demographic that it was serving in that way.

To [New York Times Magazine reporter] Nikole Hannah Jones’ point: We could do this well. We have done this well. We’ve just never done it well for the most vulnerable, for the people who need it the most.

McMahon: I also don’t think we want to touch the entirety of public housing with this brush exclusively. There are 3,000 housing authorities across the country and some of them succeed beautifully. I think that that gets to how do we do this well going forward: that perhaps there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

But it does seem to be a universal thing that if you decide to start tearing down the public housing, we know now to put the people who were living there at that time in the foreground, and make sure they’re engaged in the solution in a neighborhood that’s not serving its residents very well.

Atlanta was doing something radical in the mid-’90s: They had a dramatic plan to tear down all of this housing. I think it’s a cautionary tale.

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