The makers of “East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story” probably would not have chosen to premiere their documentary (Tuesday, on PBS) in the midst of an all-consuming global crisis. But as it turns out, their admirable, melancholy film syncs up well with Covid-19 anxiety — in part as a reminder that for some Americans, social and economic devastation in daily life is a pre-existing condition.
Written and directed by the spouses Sarah Burns and David McMahon — they previously collaborated on “The Central Park Five” with Burns’s father, Ken Burns, who is executive producer of “East Lake Meadows” — the film recounts how Atlanta destroyed a housing project in order to save it. Residents were promised a new and improved place to live on the same site; it was built, but few of them got to live there.
The long, complicated and shameful history of housing and race in 20th-century America — redlining, restrictive covenants, white flight — is told quickly but cogently, as context for the story of East Lake Meadows, built on the edge of Atlanta in 1970. The 650-unit behemoth was initially seen as a step up: “It was just like heaven to us,” Beverly Parks, a former resident, says.
In just a few years the story changed into the one we’re familiar with from decades of sensational reporting and scaremongering about housing projects. The film doesn’t shy away from the realities of gang violence and the crack epidemic — residents vividly describe the horrors of living in a place known as Little Vietnam. A grainy nighttime film clip shows flames rising from the firebombed home of Eva Davis, the longtime neighborhood activist who is the film’s unquestioned heroine.
But “East Lake Meadows” also details years of government neglect and penury, and the corrosive effect they had. Newscasts and home movies offer alarming, sometimes sickening images of sewage floods, uncollected trash and cockroach infestations. Beginning in the 1980s, the politically driven, nakedly racist stigmatization of welfare recipients deals further blows to public housing; we see House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s infamous broadside against “a drug-addicted underclass with no sense of humanity, no sense of civilization and no sense of the rules of life in which human beings respect each other.”
The film marshals a fine roster of scholars and journalists to talk about the politics, and the sociology, of public housing. Its heart, though, is in the reminiscences of the former residents. Even the ones with the most harrowing stories have a palpable affection for what was, in most cases, their childhood home. They may agree that the demolition and rebuilding that took place in the 1990s was the only solution, but they rue it nonetheless.
In the final chapter of the story, the Atlanta Housing Authority, under the leadership of an African-American woman, Renee Glover, opted to tear down East Lake Meadows and replace it with a “mixed-income” development, half for low-income residents and half open market. It’s been a resounding success, but only about 15 percent of the former residents returned. Many accepted housing vouchers, which generally enabled them to move to neighborhoods just as poor as the Meadows had been.
In the film’s most quietly moving sequence, a team of schoolchildren who were given a video camera for a school project inspect a demonstration model of one of the new homes. Their animated chatter dies down when they enter the sparkling new unit, with its staged furniture and bowl of fruit, and they go completely silent when a real estate agent asks: “Is anybody’s parents coming back over here to stay? No?”
A case could be made, with some justification, that “East Lake Meadows” isn’t angry enough. The interviewees — experts and residents alike — are united and straightforward in their belief that the story of public housing is in large part the story of institutional racism and neglect. But the temperature of the film is cool rather than hot, and there’s a touch of sentimentality in their choice to end the film at a convivial reunion of former residents.
The toughest, and most pained, voice in the film (not counting that of Eva Davis, seen in old footage) is that of the New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. She gets the last word among the talking heads, discussing America’s ability to provide housing for its poorest citizens, and she is characteristically blunt: “If the question is, Can we do it? Absolutely. Will we do it? We never have.”