Ken Burns executive-produces saga of housing project’s rise and fall
While Ken Burns obviously has a passion for history, his subjects sometimes are of relatively recent vintage.
The iconic documentarian proves that as executive producer of “East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story,” which PBS airs Tuesday, March 24 (check local listings). Produced and directed by Burns’ daughter Sarah and her husband, David McMahon, the film recalls an Atlanta public-housing project that deteriorated over the roughly 25 years of its existence and ultimately was demolished to make way for mixed-income housing.
Ken Burns maintains that regardless of the subject, he always has “focused on tiny little moments, whether it was the early days of radio or Brooklyn Bridge, or biographies of people like Jack Jackson or Horatio Nelson Jackson. We’ve always felt that the most important thing was to meet a top-down explication with a bottom-up sense of how people lived. As we got on the ground and began to learn more about it, we understood that really (with) that bottom-up sense, we could tell an entire story of American public housing.
“East Lake Meadows could be (Chicago’s) Cabrini-Green, could be fill-in-the-blank,” adds Burns. “We began to realize that the most important way — once Sarah and Dave got on the background and dug deep into the material — was to tell a bottom-up story of the folks who were trying to endure life in all of its obvious tragedies, but also show some of its glories.”
As do former residents who relate their stories in the documentary, Burns notes that initially, “East Lake Meadows looked wonderful. It looked like a promised land … but the substandard housing was so shoddy that it went into decay right away, and happened to coincide with the advent of crack and other things that just turned it into a hell. In fact, it was called a little Vietnam because people wouldn’t go in there who didn’t live there, and people who lived there were afraid for their lives. I think this unmasks a lot of the fallacies about our understanding of public housing, but also about the people who have occupied it.”