“My impression was they were going to be fine, because they were brand new—no reputation, they were not even filled up,” Lawrence Lightfoot tells the camera about the East Lake Meadows housing project in Atlanta. He and his family moved to the project in 1971 after a fire destroyed their house in another part of the city.
“I found out after a couple years,” Lightfoot went on, “that they were not okay.” Within months of moving in, residents found that their water heaters were breaking, rainfall was eroding the land around their homes, and they had to fight the government for basic necessities like day care and healthy food. Less than a year after the project opened, it had already earned the moniker “Little Vietnam.”
Advocates and policymakers still disagree about how conditions in public housing projects like East Lake Meadows became so bad, but nobody disagrees about how bad they were. The phrase “public housing” itself carries an extreme negative stigma inherited from conservative politicians like Bob Dole, who famously said the program made the government “the landlords of misery.”
As a result, the federal government and most major cities have all but abandoned the practice of maintaining large, government-run apartment buildings in favor of subsidizing private apartments. The developments that dominated many cityscapes in the 1970s and 1980s have now practically vanished, surviving only in archival footage and in the memories of their former residents.
East Lake Meadows, a new documentary that premieres on PBS on March 24, tells the story of one such development. Executive produced by Ken Burns and directed by his daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon, the film gives viewers a level-headed and compassionate look at the east Atlanta low-rise housing project.
In addition to uncovering previously untold stories of life in the development, the film highlights how our attitudes about public housing have changed since the projects came down. Previous documentaries about public housing portrayed high-density social housing as a problem in and of itself; in recent years, though, a new suite of documentaries have attempted to rehabilitate the idea of social housing for the poor, focusing on the policy decisions that helped to make the projects unlivable, and shedding light on what was lost when the government tore them down. Burns and McMahon’s documentary arrives at a moment when social housing proposals are beginning to reenter the political discourse, and its balanced portrait of life in East Lake Meadows may help eat away at the enduring stigma around public housing and the people who lived in it.
East Lake Meadows begins by tracing the genesis of public housing as a segregated springboard for low-income white families, who were expected to live in the “scientifically planned and built” communities for a few years before buying a home in the suburbs. But as single-family homeownership became easier for white people and nearly impossible for black people, white communities fled for the suburbs, which meant many of the nation’s projects were left vacant until the federal government formally opened them to African Americans starting in the 1940s.
The history of East Lake Meadows is somewhat atypical in this respect: The project was built in the late 1960s, well after this demographic shift was complete. As the residents of the old-money East Lake neighborhood undertook white flight to nearby Dekalb County, the owners of a renowned country club sold a prized golf course to the city of Atlanta, which built the East Lake Meadows project on top of it.
The complex opened in 1969, and seemed to one early resident a “real nice area to live in,” but within a few years the residents found it nearly uninhabitable. Poor site design led to collapsing culverts and repeated flooding, and apartments built on the cheap by subcontractors almost immediately saw their floors sink and their pipes collapse; at the same time, white flight eroded the city’s tax base, and when police and sanitation departments lost their funding, projects like East Lake were the first to suffer. In no time at all, residents were forced to turn to informal support systems to get by: Burns and McMahon introduce us to Eva Davis, a ferocious tenant leader who had to fight the local government to secure welfare payments and basic trash collection, and Mr. Bennett, whose truck brought fresh vegetables to the neighborhood every day to make up for the lack of good grocery stores.
Burns and McMahon’s inclusion of these characters, who are presented in the form of line-drawn cartoons when they can’t be interviewed, says a lot about the change in the way we see public housing. The canonical works about public housing from the 1990s never come close to defending the virtue of the projects as communities. Journalist Alex Kotlowitz’s nonfiction book There Are No Children Here, for instance, follows two young boys as they try to live normal lives amid the violence of Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes; meanwhile, Frederick Wiseman’s 1997 documentary Public Housing, which also takes place in Chicago, brings the director’s famous naturalistic approach to the dilapidated Ida B. Wells Houses, showing scenes of drug addiction and police brutality alongside domestic arguments and kitchen-table conversations.
By the time Wiseman’s documentary premiered, though, public housing projects in Atlanta and other cities had already started to come down, East Lake included. Congress and the Department of Housing and Urban Development had decided almost five years earlier that it was cheaper to demolish the nation’s high-rise developments and replace them with smaller mixed-income communities than to repair them where they stood. The first demolitions at Ida B. Wells began just months after Wiseman finished filming there; between 1993 and 2010, the demolition program resulted in the loss of nearly 100,000 public housing units nationwide.
That same year, though, another documentary pushed the narrative about public housing in an altogether new direction: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, an 84-minute film about a notorious St. Louis housing project, used detailed archival research to argue that the project failed not because its buildings were large or its residents unruly but because the garbage chutes and incinerators failed, and the downturning city didn’t have enough money to fix them. Subsequent public housing documentaries, such as 2015’s They Don’t Give a Damn and 2016’s 70 Acres In Chicago, both about the Windy City’s Cabrini-Green project, further pushed the narrative to focus on the negative impact of demolishing the developments, eschewing a previous focus on what life was like when they were still standing. Within a decade, the demolition of public housing had gone from an unfortunate last resort to a betrayal of residents themselves—a betrayal completed by the insufficient and long-delayed replacement developments.
East Lake Meadows represents a culmination of this trend toward rehabilitation. Like recent books such as Ben Austen’s High-Risers, it doesn’t shy away from the contradictions of the public housing narrative, the sense in which leaving the projects up and tearing them down were equally inhumane policies. Indeed, its structure conveys this duality: Half the film explores why conditions at East Lake Meadows got so bad, and the other half highlights the negative consequences of demolishing the development. But with the exception of a 10-minute segment on the crack epidemic, little attention is paid to the darker aspects of life in the projects—the filmmakers, and the residents they interview, are more interested in community leaders like Davis than they are in the stereotypical images of crack and gun violence.
Works like Wiseman’s never came close to blaming the residents of public housing for the conditions they endured, but they also never did much to explain how those conditions had come to be—a housing project like Wells just was what it was, a mistake that had to be corrected. The underlying message of East Lake Meadows, by contrast, is that the failure of any one development doesn’t mean we need to do away with the concept of public housing. For many people, moving to East Lake represented a form of salvation from rural poverty—resident Beverly Parks recalled her amazement on first seeing the development, saying she “thought it was a real nice area to live in” and that it freed her from years spent sharecropping. The destruction of East Lake, meanwhile, hardly represented an ideal outcome for most families: Residents voted overwhelmingly to demolish the project and build a new one, but in the end the new community only had room for 100 of the project’s 400 original families, with most apartments given to middle-class families. Those who did not return found that many private landlords in Atlanta would not accept tenants who had lived in public housing.
East Lake Meadows’s argument that public housing’s failure was not inevitable comes at an important time for housing policy in the United States. As the housing crisis worsens in many parts of the country, calls are growing for the federal government to step in rather than leave the issue to states and cities. Instead of subsidizing private apartments, some Democratic politicians have suggested the government could return to building its own housing, offering guaranteed shelter to the poorest Americans. Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, for instance, advocated repealing the Faircloth Amendment, which prohibits new public housing construction, and Sanders’s housing plan calls for building millions of new units of social housing; Rep. Ilhan Omar, meanwhile, has introduced a bill that would create more than 8 million new units of public housing.
Even if the next Democratic administration doesn’t build any new public housing, maintaining the nation’s remaining projects will be challenging enough. Congress refuses to address a $100 billion backlog in capital repairs at public housing developments across the country, and cities are turning to a new quasi-privatization program to secure badly needed maintenance funds. These decisions too are the result of longstanding stigma against government-owned housing, the same stigma that helped bring the projects down in the first place.
The trend toward humanistic documentaries like East Lake Meadows, though, may help show that the projects need not have been, in the words of one newscaster, “eyesores for those who live near them and nightmares for those who live in them.” Despite the dilapidated apartments and the rampant violence, East Lake was home for the people who lived there. With more investment, better management, and a kinder government, perhaps the community never would have become “Little Vietnam.”
At the end of the documentary, Burns and McMahon show us East Lake’s annual reunion barbecue, where former residents gather in a nearby park to reconnect and remember life in the project. Just before the ending credits roll, one former resident reflects on his time in the development.
“It was a good thing and it was a bad thing,” he says. “This was where we learned everything we know about everything. This was our home.”