East Lake Meadows: PBS Does Public Housing

“Public housing has always been both a financial proposition and a moral one. About finding not just need, somehow but measuring worth. How do we begin to sort out which of the many people who could be assisted, both need it, and somehow deserve it? It becomes a window into race relations, it’s a window into understanding the role of homeownership in society,  and it’s a way of understanding the level of compassion there is for those who do need some assistance.” 

-Lawrence Vale

“We are not mature enough as a society to look in the mirror and see how we manufactured American poverty, how we manufactured housing that was meant to seclude these poor people. And how we turned a blind eye to creating a middle-class while simultaneously excluding people from it.”

-Jelani Cobb

If you haven’t watched East Lake Meadows, PBS’s new documentary on public housing, you need to. While not perfect, East Lake Meadows is an excellent examination of the rise and fall of public housing in the East Lake community of Atlanta and the transition from public housing to mixed-income housing. East Lake’s history parallels the history of public housing in East Winston and across the country. Through interviews with former residents and archival footage and photos, East Lake Meadows gives its viewers a fairly comprehensive history of public housing, a subject that is often ignored and marginalized by the media. PBS crames a lot of history into just over an hour and forty-five minutes.

The only criticism that I have on East Lake Meadows is that it isn’t long enough. PBS gave Ken Burns 16 hours to examine Country Music, but less than 2 hours to examine the much more complex and important subject of public housing.

East Lake Meadows documents the birth of public housing and give an overview of separate and unequal housing policies that have created the apartheid state we live in today. In Winston-Salem two separate and distinct cities were created, one east of Highway 52 and one west of it. As East Lake went from white to Black in the 1970s, in Winston-Salem, East Winston quickly transitioned from white to Black in the 1940s.

The decline of East Lake Meadows parallels the decline of Happy Hill Gardens during the 1980s. Poor construction. Poor sight design. A former East Lake Meadows resident stated that “when you isolate people…people prey on each other.” As Gary Webb reported at the time, when the government allows drugs to flow into our country, they quickly find their way to the poorest, most marginalized communities.

While Ronald Reagan was responsible for slashing public housing authority’s budgets, it was Bill Clinton who began the transition from public housing to mixed-income housing. Bill Clinton’s HOPE VI program declared that concentrations of poverty were the problem while ignoring the government’s role in creating poverty and abysmal record building and maintaining public housing.

“We made better places. But not better places for the people who lived there.”

The last part of East Lake Meadows documents the transition from East Lake Meadows to the Villages of East Lake. Despite promises, they would be able to return to the new Villages of East Lake, most former residents of East Lake Meadows were given Section 8 vouchers or relocated to another public housing complex. A complete transformation of the neighborhood occurred, with resources previously unimaginable. But the people who needed housing the most are now in some “other” part of town. They lost community ties and mutual assistance networks.

East Lake Meadows is the story of public housing in America. As our economy creators into a depression, public housing is needed now more than ever. But the East Lake model of so-called “Purpose Built Communities” is reproducing itself in our community. That’s a development that we should oppose. We should support improving and preserving public housing in Winston-Salem. Crystal Towers does not need to be sold. The Housing Authority has inflated the costs of repairs at Crystal.

Epperson Happy Hill




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