'East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story': TV Review

Dry, but still substantive and engaging.

Sarah Burns and David McMahon's look at the aspirations and failings of America's public housing initiatives gets thoughtful treatment in this PBS doc, executive produced by Ken Burns.

Try as I might, I don't have a pitch for PBS' feature-length doc East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story that's going to make it sound sexy or sensationalistic for you.

Either a documentary about urban planning and the successes and failures of America's public housing initiatives is going to sound like your kind of escapist intellectualism (or intellectual escapism) or it won't. Those with even basic curiosity will find Sarah Burns and David McMahon's film a smart and substantive thing, worth watching and mulling over in its empathetic pragmatism.

East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story — premiering with the "Ken Burns Presents" banner reminding you that the Civil War auteur is to PBS as Dick Wolf is to NBC — tackles the specific and the general with confident ease. After a quick introduction tracing the origins of American public housing to Franklin Roosevelt and the Public Works Administration, East Lake Meadows takes us to Atlanta. It shows the evolution of the city's East Lake neighborhood from affluent white enclave to a victim of white flight to the construction of East Lake Meadows in 1970 to its demolition three decades later as a poster child for blight and mismanagement. Then, with distinctively clear eyes, it looks at the transition to the Villages at East Lake, a rehabilitation that can be viewed as either a triumph or complicated failure.

Burns and McMahon's approach to the topic is analytical and occasionally dry — previous collaborations Jackie Robinson and The Central Park Five started from a flashier place —  but certainly never bloodless. Most of the documentary's talking heads are former East Lake Meadows residents, people who moved into the 650-unit project at different ages and for different reasons and experienced its highs and lows from different angles. Yes, there are stories of cockroaches falling from the ceiling into bowls of cereal. The impact of the crack epidemic on the neighborhood and its individual residents is an unavoidable centerpiece when examining the decline of the Meadows, but this isn't a doc that's intended to wallow. There are joyful recollections of community, while the portrait of local activist Eva Davis, recalled by family and loved ones, offers inspiration.

The aspirations of public housing are crucial here, as is a complex explanation for why those aspirations so frequently fall short. How did a public works initiative meant to serve as a stepping stone for home ownership and integration become another version of segregation, a ladder that whites were frequently able to avoid entirely and that left minorities unable to elevate? How did "projects" and "welfare" come to be negative vernacular in the culture wars and what role did the media and politicians play in perpetuating and transforming the images of welfare queens and crack babies and food stamp abusers from anomalies (or complete fictions) into unrepresentative representative images to stigmatize places like East Lake Meadows?

The directors have rounded up a varied assortment of talking heads beyond those residents, with sociologists and historians — this is a good chance to see what Twitter favorite Kevin Kruse does when he isn't feuding with Dinesh D'Souza — as well as national political figures like former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros and local political figures like Renee Glover, former head of the Atlanta Housing Authority. 

Brief animated sequences from Molly Schwartz help alleviate some of the inherent dryness of East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story and the film's actual footage is a good mixture of news coverage, tending toward the negative, and well-documented personal snapshots and home movies from residents. A school video club, which let kids go around filming their own neighborhood on a particular precipice, offers a wonderful contrast to the "official" news coverage and I wish the directors had had access to more of that.

There's a version of this story that would treat East Lake Meadows as a tragedy, but Burns and McMahon are too emotionally invested for that. They see the hope of the wife fleeing an abusive spouse who found a safer home in the Meadows or the woman who moved into public housing so that she could afford higher education or the pride in the face of the son who remembers his mother's commitment to saving money that finally allowed them to buy their first house, even if it was only eight blocks from the projects.

This isn't an easy story, but as wonky as it may be, it's a never-dull reflection on the gap between American optimism and execution, how much we've closed that gap and the work that remains to be done.

Airs Tuesday, March 24, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on PBS.