East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story, directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon (Washington, DC: Florentine Films and WETA, 2002).
Review by Courtney Rawlings
Following their Peabody Award-winning documentary The Central Park Five (2012), co-directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon’s newest film examines another depressing tale of race in America. East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story (2020), focuses on the eponymous neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia. Now a diverse and thriving community, home to the renowned East Lake Golf Club (hosts to the annual TOUR Championship) and boasting one of the most successful mixed-income housing projects in the country, the neighborhood was once the location of a decaying public housing project plagued by violence: East Lake Meadows (1970-2000). Through a mixture of found footage and interviews with East Lake tenants and historians, Burns and McMahon’s documentary traces the history of public housing in the United States by focusing on this notorious project.
In the early 1960s only nine Black people resided in majority-white East Lake, but by the end of the decade those numbers had reversed. The story of this “white flight” is well-known: while white families could easily secure low-interest housing loans from the Federal Housing Authority, the government allotted only two percent of available loans to Black Americans. As the urbanist Charles Abrams has pointed out, this encouraged the white populous to migrate to the suburbs, which “redistribute[d] population[s] into areas inhabited by a new white ‘élite’ and a Black unwanted.” Furthermore, Black Americans’ lack of access to capital was bolstered by racist zoning policies like redlining, which engendered segregation and impelled poverty.
When East Lake Meadows was constructed in 1970, the area had become both majority Black and severely impoverished. According to the documentary, fresh produce was a delicacy unavailable save for the days when two “rolling stores” (grocery trucks) occasionally visited the neighborhood. Nevertheless, Burns and McMahon reveal that, though life was tough, many former tenants enjoyed their early years at the project. One interviewee, Beverly Parks, explained how she moved to East Lake Meadows from a small house that was rarely stocked with food or kept heated. Migrating to the three- and four-bedroom apartments at East Lake was thus an enormous improvement for her and her family. And Parks’s story was hardly unique; most of the residents reflected warmly on their first years at the project.
Unfortunately, just three years after opening, East Lake Meadows began to deteriorate. According to historian Katie Marages Schank, the project collapsed because the Atlanta Housing Authority relied on cheap outside contractors who did not properly install the sewers or properly site the project. One tenant’s apartment flooded with sewage water not once but four times. Moreover, the entire ditch-filled greenspace sometimes flooded, becoming a veritable swamp that prevented local children from playing. This did not augur well for the project, which continued to decay over the next several decades. By the 1990s East Lake Meadows, which had suffered under the crack epidemic, was riddled with violence. As such, the city of Atlanta opted to replace the project with mixed-income properties. Overall, both the academics and the resident interviewees broadly approve of this decision and celebrate the area’s “revitalization,” which included the construction of a wealthy golf community and charter school.
Indeed, when they decry the razing of East Lake Meadows, those who speak in the documentary do so to mourn the destruction of the community as such. Put another way, there’s shockingly little discussion of the importance of the project’s political message: that the U.S. government should provide housing to those who reside in this country, regardless of race. For example, no interviewee suggested that we upend the cruel housing policies that, as of 2018, allowed for 38.1 million Americans to live in poverty. Public housing, in other words, is no longer on the political imagination. According to East Lake Meadows, the destruction of public housing was the end of its history.
Courtney Rawlings is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at Emory University. Courtney’s studies are largely concerned with the art, architecture, and design in Europe and America from the interwar to the midcentury. Courtney is working on her dissertation, preliminarily titled, “The Architecture of Red Los Angeles: Building Low-Cost Housing Communities for a Postwar Future, 1942-1955,” which focuses on the work of three modern architects working in Los Angeles at midcentury: Richard Neutra, Gregory Ain, and Paul R. Williams.
Featured image (at top): The Great Depression inspired many 1930s urbanists to dream up solutions to widespread slum housing in cities like Atlanta. East Lake Meadows was an extension of this idealism. Public Works Administration, “Architect’s Drawing of the University Housing Project in Atlanta, Georgia, Will Replace Slums” (1934), Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, National Archives.