Arts documentary review

Building poverty

‘East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story’ effectively dives into the history of poverty and race in America through the lens of public housing

East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story
Directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon
Not Rated, Airs on PBS March 24 at 8 p.m. ET

In the new documentary East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story, directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon remind us that housing is not just a building where we live; it’s intertwined with where we work, what opportunities our children have, and how we interact with the rest of society.

The documentary follows the story of East Lake Meadows, a public housing development operated by the Atlanta Housing Authority from 1970 until its demolition in the mid-1990s. After its demolition, the area, once known for the prevalence of drugs and violence there, became a mixed-income neighborhood. Through this community, we learn about public housing policies in the United States from their roots in the Great Depression to the modern-day. Though slightly formulaic, East Lake Meadows is a worthy follow-up to Burns and McMahon’s critically acclaimed The Central Park Five. It’s a nuanced, well-researched and eye-opening look into public housing and — in the words of Associate Dean Lawrence Vale — how it serves as a “window into race relations.”

One of the most impressive features of this documentary is the sheer number of perspectives it brings: not just from experts like Vale, but from both residents and policymakers. It’s necessary for an issue that is this complex and extensive. It’s easy to label East Lake Meadows as another case of gentrification screwing over the most vulnerable, and in a sense, it is. Through some public policy missteps, only around 15 percent of residents managed to move back to the new community, now called the Villages of East Lake. Most residents accepted vouchers to move into private housing elsewhere, which presented a different challenge as landlords could refuse to accept vouchers. Yet we also see why East Lake Meadows had to be demolished and the immense benefits that those 15 percent received, including a thriving charter school and a new grocery store. The diversity of perspectives is exactly what makes the documentary so effective, allowing it to clearly communicate its message without appearing blatantly one-sided.

Coupled with thoughtful cinematography, these perspectives leave an enduring impact on the viewer. In one shot, the camera zooms into the picture of a single child as Carol Naughton, the former General Counsel for Atlanta Housing Authority, points out how East Lake Meadows was a way to push away the most vulnerable and forget about them. Toward the end of the documentary, a similar shot, but now with a man instead of a child, reminds us that policies can have deep and irreversible effects on people’s lives. Too often, policymakers are not the ones affected by their own policies and fail to consider the humanity of those who are affected.

The zooming effect, along with clear graphics and the focus on an important aspect of American history, are unsurprisingly reminiscent of Ken Burns’ style; he serves as an executive producer for the film. Though some parts feel familiar because of this, East Lake Meadows is still worth a watch. It’s never a bad day to learn more about American history, especially if it’s through a well-made documentary.