In a technical sense, the scope of East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story, a PBS documentary which debuted Tuesday night, is extremely specific. Filmmaker-spouses Sarah Burns and David McMahon follow a 30-year period from 1970, when the Atlanta Housing Authority opened a public housing project called East Lake Meadows, until 2000, when, after decades of near-criminal negligence, the city destroyed and rebuilt it from scratch. But the film also attempts to tell a larger story—about the fraught history of America’s relationship to public housing—and a timely one, as the coronavirus pandemic forces the country to confront how the government serves its most vulnerable citizens.
Executive produced by Ken Burns, the film traces the origins of East Lake Meadows back to 1934, when Atlanta officials began construction on the first public housing project in the nation: Techwood Homes. “We think of public housing as a place where low-income and mostly minority families live,” author Richard Rothstein says in the documentary. “That’s not how public housing began in this country.” Instead, Techwood was built in the shadow of the Great Depression, when millions of families—including middle- and upper-class families—lost their homes at once. The Roosevelt administration pitched public housing as a safety net for white middle-class Americans who had fallen on hard times, a stop-gap to help them ascend back to stability. Low-income or minority families were not the target demographics; their neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for public housing.
Burns and McMahon sketch the trajectory of public housing through interviews with public officials, historians and journalists. After a while, white residents were able to use New Deal reforms to transition into homeownership, while black citizens were redlined out, given no means to accumulate wealth. “For a time, the system was working as intended,” Sarah Burns said. “It was working as a temporary place for people to get their lives together and climb out of poverty. But as it became a place where it served lower and lower income people. White people are getting all these ladders out and the people who are left behind are non-white people—in many cities, they’re African-American—and they’re low-income, the lowest incomes. That’s when we start stigmatizing it more and funding it less.”