Impact of Racism on Public Housing Explored in New PBS Documentary

A new documentary entitled “East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story” takes a close look at a public housing project opened by the Atlanta Housing Authority in 1970 and demolished a generation later. The documentary, which was executive produced by filmmaker Ken Burns, looks at the legacy of public housing in the United States. Produced and directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon, who also created The Central Park Five and Jackie Robinson, the documentary will air on PBS on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. 

Initially praised for its spacious units and new construction, East Lake Meadows quickly became known as “little Vietnam,” a moniker that was intended to capture the crime and violence that overwhelmed the community. A lack of funding left the project and surrounding landscape in disrepair and led to a rapid decline in the quality of life. As public housing developments in Atlanta and across the country were further abandoned and stigmatized, and as a drug epidemic swept through cities, East Lake Meadows became nearly uninhabitable.

The film documents the tremendous hardships faced by East Lake families; the lack of access to grocery stores and fresh produce; the impact of devastating unemployment and poverty; conditions that included mold, leaky pipes, and collapsing walls and ceilings; and the seemingly ubiquitous presence of crime, drugs, and guns. It also follows the births of children, holiday celebrations, daily activities in schools, and the ways in which residents were “making a way out of no way.”

In addition to former residents, the film features interviews with some of the country’s leading sociologists and housing experts, including Mary Pattillo (Northwestern University), Lawrence Vale (MIT) and Edward Goetz (University of Minnesota); historians Kevin Kruse and Jelani Cobb; journalists Nikole Hannah-Jones and Douglas Blackmon; and others who worked directly on housing issues at the time, including former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros; Carol Naughton, former General Counsel for Atlanta Housing Authority and now the President of Purpose Built Communities; and Renee Glover, former CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority, among others.