Rilene and Chasity Dixon clean up the lawn in front of their East Lake Meadows apartment. Atlanta, GA. October 28, 1992. (Credit:PBS)

New PBS documentary focuses on former Atlanta public housing project

A new PBS documentary will focus on the transformation of a former, crime-ridden Atlanta housing development into a thriving mixed-income area.

The documentary, “East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story,” focuses on the former East Lake Meadows, which had about 1,400 residents and sat near the East Lake Golf Club before it was razed in the mid-1990s to make way for the mixed-income housing development The Villages of East Lake.

“We were originally kind of turned on to the redevelopment and transformation of neighborhood,” the documentary’s director Sarah Burns told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “As we started exploring, we realized there was a whole other part of it that hadn’t been told.” Burns is the daughter of documentary film maker Ken Burns who has done documentary series on topics including the Civil War and country music. She co-directed the East Lake film with her husband David McMahon.

Burns’ film also explores public housing developments in the U.S. and how many factors, including racial bias, contributed to their deterioration. Burns, who worked on the film for three years, said it will feature interviews with about 25 former East Lake Meadows residents.

“When we see public housing on the news, it tends to be crime stories and we wanted to do something that considers the variety of experiences of the people that lived there,” she said.


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One of those people was activist Eva Davis, who moved to East Lake Meadows in 1971 and worked to transform the community.

Davis helped organize voter registrations and worked with Atlanta activists and national figures such as former President Jimmy Carter.

Eva Davis leans against a telephone pole, the buildings of of East Lake Meadows appear behind her. Atlanta, GA. September 8, 1986. (Credit: PBS)

As East Lake Meadows Tenant Association president, Davis used her relationship with Carter to help land a $33 million Housing and Urban Development grant for Atlanta to revitalize the community.

Davis died in 2012, but the community still has ties to the longtime resident, who has a street named after her where Charles R. Drew Charter School sits.

“She was just a powerful force in the neighborhood,” Burns said, who also co-directed the 2012 documentary “The Central Park Five,” about the five Black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted in the infamous Central Park jogger rape of 1989. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was named the Best Non-Fiction film of 2012 by the New York Film Critics Circle and won a 2013 Peabody Award.

Burns hopes her latest documentary starts a conversation about public housing and understanding the experiences of those who’ve lived in them.

“A lot of it is about understanding who the people are and listening to their stories and relating to them,” Burns said.

The documentary airs 8 p.m. March 24 on PBS and includes interviews with housing and sociology experts and those who worked on housing issues at the time, including Carol Naughton, former General Counsel for Atlanta Housing Authority and Renee Glover, former CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority.

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