A new documentary from executive producer Ken Burns is telling the story of East Lake Meadows and its residents. Scheduled to air on PBS on March 24, East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story explores the story of the 650-unit public housing community on the edge of Atlanta and tackles the impact of racism on public housing. The public housing project was opened by the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) in 1970 and demolished in the mid-1990s. It was built on the former practice golf course of the Atlanta Athletic Club, which moved north as part of the white flight, and the site became home to thousands of low-income households, mostly African American. While the housing was initially praised, disinvestment and shoddy construction left the project and surrounding landscape in disrepair. It soon became known as “Little Vietnam” for the crime and violence that took place there.
However rough it was, many families had nowhere else to go and continued to call it home, creating community bonds despite the challenges.
“We began the film as an exploration of place,” said Sarah Burns, who directed and produced the documentary with husband David McMahon. “We quickly realized, though, that while the film is very much about public housing, and its promises and shortcomings, it is really about the stories of the families who called East Lake Meadows home. They raised their children there, celebrated birthdays and holidays, and fought to protect their homes and their futures. The story of East Lake is really the story of their lives.”
The documentary tells the stories of more than a dozen families who lived at East Lake Meadows from the 1970s through the mid-1990s, including four generations of the family of Eva Davis, the longtime tenant leader. The stories share the hardships endured as well as the celebrations of life.
In addition to the resident stories, the documentary explores the factors that contributed to the development’s deterioration and questions the racial biases that led many to blame the residents for the conditions.
It also delves into the AHA’s plan to demolish the public housing in 1990s and the residents’ fears of being pushed out. Ultimately, AHA partnered with the East Lake Foundation, created by local developer and philanthropist Tom Cousins, to design the Villages of East Lake, the new mixed-income community with 542 units. This new community has experienced growth, with a top-performing charter school and resources, such as a new grocery story and bank, to serve the residents’ needs. However, only 15% of the former residents returned, while many others used vouchers to move out of the community into private housing elsewhere.