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New doc chronicles the downfall, communal resolve of Atlanta’s notorious ‘Little Vietnam’

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Debuting tonight, PBS documentary “East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story” was produced by Ken Burns and made by his daughter, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon

An aerial view of a housing project in Atlanta from the 1990s.
An aerial of the East Lake Meadows housing project, circa 1996.
Tim Huber; photography courtesy of PBS

Freshly married at age 17 with two children, Atlanta native Aseelah Muhammad was struggling to find full-time work in the early 1990s when she and her husband qualified for public housing assistance. The family was given two choices: Bankhead Courts or East Lake Meadows. Muhammad knew the latter’s reputation, but she often attended a prayer service across the street, so choosing East Lake made her feel safer.

On the day Muhammad’s family moved in—not more than four hours after they’d unpacked—a man was murdered during a dice game just beneath the steps leading to her second-floor apartment.

“My girls wanted to put the stuff back in the trunk and go find some other place to live,” Muhammad, 53, recalled in a recent interview with Curbed Atlanta. “I had to explain to them, ‘This is it. We don’t have another place. We don’t have the means.’ It was hard to get them to understand that, they were so young.”

Now retired from a long career as a senior claims auditor with Kaiser Permanente, Muhammad eventually uprooted her family to Gwinnett County—but not before participating in the community-led demise of East Lake Meadows in the mid-1990s, the public housing complex so violent it’s still referred to as “Little Vietnam.”

Alongside academics, government officials, and journalists, Muhammad joins many former neighbors in recounting both the horrors and resilient, communal bonds that were forged during trying circumstances in a new PBS documentary that debuted Tuesday, East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story.

With an hour-and-45-minute running time, the Ken Burns-produced documentary offers an unflinching, moving, and in-depth retelling of how racism played a role in the creation of East Lake Meadows and living conditions that quickly became deplorable. Burns’s daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon (The Central Park Five, Jackie Robinson) directed the film and share producing credits.

“We always thought of this as not just telling the story of East Lake Meadows, and the residents’ stories, but as something a lot of people can relate to,” said Burns, who’s based with her husband in Brooklyn.

Rusted white apartment stairs with high grass and large section of dry dirt close to the barbwire fence. Square metal beams in the middleground along with stairs leading to other apartments. Trees and powerlines in the background. East Lake, Atlanta, GA. Feb. 12, 1997.
Rusted white apartment stairs with high grass and barbwire fencing in 1997.
Tim Huber

The documentary traces Atlanta’s public housing story from the clearing of slums in the 1930s and the rise of Techwood Homes near Georgia Tech (built for white, middle-class families, as many were across the country), through redlining practices, the suburban “white flight” boom, and rapid degradation of housing projects across the city.

In 1970, the Atlanta Public Housing Authority opened East Lake Meadows—a sprawling, spartan complex of 650 units set among eastside hills, in what was then considered no man’s land by city officials—on the Atlanta Athletic Club’s former practice golf course. Thousands of low-income Atlantans, mostly black, moved in. At first, many considered the heated, relatively spacious units as heavenly, relative to where they’d come from. “We were just happy there,” one resident, Beverly Parks, says in the film. “Until it became a nightmare.”

The apartments’ shoddy, cheap construction, lack of government funding and maintenance, and especially the crack epidemic of the 1980s took an ugly toll. Children were caught in drug-related gunfire as mother’s sheltered babies in their bathrooms to avoid bullets. One interview subject vividly recalls watching, as a boy, a gunshot victim’s last long breaths. Another describes the environment as “ruthless.”

But with a snappy soundtrack as its pulse, the documentary is also a celebration of life, chronicling families who invented their own fun and a network of grandmothers who held political—almost mafioso—might within the community. The latter group included firebrand Eva Davis, the community's outspoken longtime tenant leader, whose apartment was firebombed by drug dealers in an (unsuccessful) attempt to keep her quiet.

A woman with big glasses and short hair leans against a telephone pole.
Eva Davis at East Lake Meadows in September 1986. East Lake Boulevard SE was renamed Eva Davis Way in honor of the late community leader in 2018.
Louie Favorite, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Pre-Olympics efforts in Atlanta to break up concentrations of poverty by creating mixed-income settings, often with lower-density townhomes, helped usher in the phased demolition of East Lake Meadows. But the process of relocating was fraught with complications, and only an estimated 15 percent of residents elected to—or were able to— return.

Atlanta real estate titan Tom Cousins, who created the nonprofit East Lake Community Foundation, ultimately partnered with the AHA to develop the Villages of East Lake that stand today. The community’s 542 units—half reserved for lower-income residents—are served by a new Publix, bank, and one of Atlanta’s best performing school systems, Drew Charter, as filmmakers note.

Below are Q&As, condensed for space and clarity, with filmmaker Sarah Burns and Muhammad, the young mother who witnessed the worst of East Lake Meadows but was sorry, in a way, to see it fall.

Curbed Atlanta: Of all the public housing projects in the country, what made you really passionate about honing in on this one that’s been gone for 25 years?

Sarah Burns: We were initially drawn to East Lake after reading about the successes of the Villages and Drew [Charter School] and the new community there. We came down to kind of check it out, and felt that to really talk about that, we had to expand our scope and understand what came before, and how we got here. In reality, we could have told the story anywhere and found something that would relate to people’s experiences in public housing and the failures in terms of federal and local governments.

One of the subjects interviewed mentions the community being a heaven before it became a nightmare. I’d venture to say most Atlantans, at least today, aren’t aware there was ever a “heaven” phase at East Lake Meadows.

I think it depends on who you talk to. This is why it’s important to understand people’s stories. There were problems with East Lake Meadows essentially from the beginning. There’s a story in the film about, a couple of years after it opened, having these huge problems with the sewer lines. In the early seventies, people were having sewage backing up into their apartments frequently.

Eva Davis, who’s the sort of resident leader in the community, this force of nature, you get to know her in the film. She had moved years earlier from the country, from a farm. What East Lake represented for families, certainly at the beginning, was a really important thing, and they were happy to be there. Right away, there were problems, and that only increased as failures to maintain it became more and more of a problem, and funding just continued to evaporate, and you see the services originally intended to be put in place around it never materialized.

What sort of services never materialized?

There were some plans initially—or at least spoken of—that there would be a health center. Just access to more stuff. There was no grocery store. It was very isolated at the time. And it was put there on purpose, on the edge of the city, because it was a place where nobody wanted to be, far away, and they could kind of ignore what the conditions were.

A series of dirt yard with large metal poles in the yards.
Laundry posts circa 1997.
Tim Huber

But there’s a message of perseverance in the film.

Absolutely. You see so much resilience in the people who live there, really making a way out of no way. As we tracked people down and talked to more and more, many of them said it needed to be torn down, but they also have fond memories and still, in many cases, feel a deep connection to this place that’s been gone for more than 20 years. Even though the buildings are gone, the East Lake Meadows community still very much exists.

A couple standing next to hanging laundry in Atlanta.
Ernie Stanley and Barbara Lightfoot stand next to hanging laundry, with apartments in the background, circa 1974. Subpar landscape planning let to ditches and barren ground throughout the complex.
Barbara Atterberry

But when the Villages of East Lake opened, just 15 percent of residents came back?

Yes. The Atlanta Housing Authority didn’t very carefully track where everyone went. But a lot of people got Section 8 vouchers and I think people had mixed experiences with that. A lot of landlords don’t accept those vouchers. But for a lot of people, Section 8 was great. The reality is that the new community served a different [higher-income] population—even among the 50 percent of units that are public housing units.

I remember speaking with an EMT one time who said he would refuse to respond to calls at East Lake Meadows.

That doesn’t surprise me. There’s the story about the post office not delivering mail there. And that just compounds the issue: The services that are meant to keep it safe. Until the war on drugs came, and the police sort of wreak havoc on the neighborhood, the residents would complain they couldn’t get the police to come when they needed them.

This seems like a timely topic, given what’s going on in American cities with gentrification and redevelopment of areas that were considered destitute before. What do you hope people across the country can take from this?

While gentrification isn’t explicitly the topic of the film, it certainly is related. And you see that the neighborhoods surrounding where East Lake Meadows was have changed, and property values have gone up almost exponentially since the mid-nineties, so it’s certainly very related as we see cities changing.

And I think it raises really big questions about who gets to live in cities. Often, some of the problems of a place like East Lake Meadows aren’t being solved, they’re being pushed somewhere else. Outside the Perimeter in Atlanta, and outside of city limits in other places. We definitely see those effects everywhere.

In retirement, Aseelah Muhammad now lives in College Park.

Curbed Atlanta: Beyond the violence, what struggles did you encounter while living at East Lake Meadows?

Aseelah Muhammad: Later on, I actually had taken on three more children, so I had six children to help raise, and we were in a small apartment, so trying to get them to move us into a larger apartment was a struggle. Until one day, I met Miss Eva Davis there, told her my situation, and she went down to the leasing management office. She found us a bigger place where we wouldn’t have any issues.

Later she asked me if I’d run for vice president of the resident’s association, and I told her, “Yes, I’d be honored.” From that day forward, we worked on the redevelopment plan.

A row of buildings with some shuttered and trees in the background.
The community in 1997.
Tim Huber

When you look back, are there positive feelings toward the relationships and how people were able to persist?

Now we did have good times in East Lake. As far as when it came to the residents, the children. They had good relationships with other children in the community, and that made everything work. You didn’t always see the violence going on, the drug deals going on. And then Davis, she really worked hard to keep that place as safe as possible, even putting herself and her family in danger. That was a positive thing. Then there were days, like when it snowed in Atlanta, we would go out and have snowball fights. Those were the good times we had.

With that in mind, when you hear people refer to the community as “Little Vietnam,” how do you feel?

At that time, it was a battlefield out there. But by the time I got there, the war had started dying down. I’ll just say it like that.

About five years after you moved in, the heavy equipment came and started tearing the place down. Did you witness that?

With me being part of that redevelopment, they had a cutting of the ribbons when they got ready to bulldoze the first building. And we all had a shovel in our hand, and we dug up the first dirt in the ground. That was the day that let you know this was really happening. The apartments were going away.

How did it feel to actively take part in your home’s demise?

It was a sad moment, but it was a good feeling, because you knew something good was going to come out of it.

A wall of graffiti and a man and child standing in front of it.
A man and child next to a wall of graffiti in the community, circa 1996.
Tim Huber

What do you think when you look around the area now?

It’s an amazing community. The current school system that’s over there, the YMCA is over there now. The amenities that’s there—even the grocery store and the bank—they weren’t there before. I mean, it’s an amazing outcome, a blessing that happened in that community. There’s just not enough of the [former] residents there who could have come back.

Did you have a lot of friends who managed to return?

It was very few and far between. The ones that did come back, they probably weren’t able to afford it [for long]. You can have Section 8 vouchers and a job, but if you got, let’s say, a $5 pay raise, your voucher money just started calculating downwards. And then your rent started getting higher. So you still weren’t able to make it that way.

Did you use the voucher to get a house, or another apartment?

I actually used it to get a three-bedroom house [in Gwinnett County’s Grayson]. Nice home. The landlord accepted Section 8 as well as me letting him know I was moving from East Lake Meadows housing project.

The neighborhood we moved in was pretty nice, predominately white. We were the first black family. And we didn’t have any problems. They welcomed us in, told us about the block parties. Two of my older daughters actually graduated from the high school in Gwinnett. I just wanted a better education for my daughters.