King Williams didn't set out to make an epic documentary film about Atlanta's controversial 20-year effort to purge the city of its low-income housing projects. It just sorta happened.
Six years ago, he was a Georgia State University junior tasked with coming up with a project for an urban policy and sociology class on metropolitan Atlanta. So he chose to look into one of the great mysteries of his childhood by researching what happened to East Lake Meadows, the former housing project located on the edge of East Atlanta and Decatur, where many of his boyhood friends had lived. "I just remember it being there in Decatur as a child, and at one point it just wasn't there anymore. So I was like, I'm going to do a paper on it." That paper grew legs as he met other Atlanta natives in his class who liked the idea. They decided to get a camera with the idea of shooting enough footage for a two-to-three minute complementary doc. A month later, they had 15 hours of footage. "We were like, we should really try to make this an actual documentary."
Williams today is a 28-year-old graduate with a resume of production experience working under big dogs like Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, yet he still doesn't consider himself a full-fledged filmmaker. After years of trial-and-error stops and starts, however, he and his original crew of GSU classmates are narrowing in on a release date for their full-length documentary. The Atlanta Way attempts to make sense of all the hairy issues of class, race, and culture that have grown out of the Atlanta Housing Authority's nationally recognized model for decentralizing inner-city poverty. It includes interviews with residents of some of the last housing projects to be demolished in Atlanta (Herndon Homes, Bowen Homes, Palmer House, Roosevelt House, Hollywood Courts, Bankhead Courts), as well as interviews with journalists, social advocates, power brokers, and politicians, including former mayoral candidate Mary Norwood and Kasim Reed, a year before he decided to run for the city's top office.
With a tentative release scheduled for fall in Atlanta, Williams talked in advance about why he struggled to create an uncompromising look at the issue, why "gentrification" is still a dirty word to some, and why he feels Atlanta's sense of culture has taken the biggest hit in the wake of all the change.
This is a topic that inspires so many opposing views, in Atlanta and across the country. Did you set out to make a film that would speak to both sides or is that impossible?
That's one reason it took us so long. For a long time we kept trying to edit it to appease people. If we were going to like Emory or University of Georgia, if we went to a school where we knew people would be more pro[-gentrification], we'd say, 'OK, let's make something that they would like.' And eventually we realized we can't do that. So we scrapped everything and went back [to the beginning]. And that's when we made the trailer and we were like don't compromise anything.
On your YouTube trailer, a commenter asks what good is a documentary like this if it comes out after all the projects have been torn down. What kind of impact do you hope to have after the fact?
I recently saw a movie titled The Pruitt-Igoe Myth about a housing project that dissipated in the '50s and '60s in St. Louis. It was good, but again, there was the issue of relevancy because this is a housing project that was torn down 50-odd years ago. As a filmmaker I can see what they were going for. They interviewed the residents because it meant something; this is why the documentary was important. We took that in mind once we started on our project again. We've got to make sure we show the relevancy at that point in time and today because if you look now there's a strong possibility that public housing may not exist for a lot of people anywhere. Atlanta's still like the focal point and the model city because of the Olympics and because of what Renee Glover and the AHA did - good or bad. New Orleans has copied that model, I'm living in New York right now and I can see that happening in different parts of Brooklyn, where they're taking that same Atlanta housing authority model - which is decentralize poverty, move people into other particular places regardless if that market is going to actually take them or not, and redevelop that land into something more affordable. But when it does get rebuilt, it's typically not affordable and the people that we were trying to help initially don't ever receive those benefits or resources.
Gentrification has become such a loaded word. How did people react to it when you framed the issue that way?
We got pushback the entire time, with the exception of our teachers at GSU who were really supportive. The word is a loaded gun.
There were a couple of interviews where we'd say we want to talk about gentrification and they'd say, 'Cut the camera off.' No one wants to be looked at as the bad guy in this case. But we went by the actual etymology of the word, which is "gentry," or the ruling class. So if you're a private developer or if you are AHA or if you're a homeowner who's moving into Atlanta from another location, you are part of the gentry. That is what it is. We don't see it as a negative or positive. So as people got into it with us, we didn't argue with them. People would say 'I don't want to talk about this' or 'I think gentrification is a bad term to be used' or 'we're not gentrifying anything, we're helping to redevelop this neighborhood.' So we pretty much had flak the whole entire time.
Without me having watched the film, what would you say you learned about gentrification in Atlanta from making it?
The first thing is initially on paper it was a good idea. If anyone was to see what the Atlanta Housing Authority's plan was in 1990, which was the year the Olympics get assigned to Atlanta ... it looks good on paper: We're going to get you better places to stay, with more affordable rents. It seemed like a good plan. They had a voucher program in place, which made it seem more realistic. At that point, it's the beginning of the housing bubble. And so all the right things are happening at the right time.
In retrospect, it probably could've been tweaked a little better. But what I've learned so far is that a good idea still needs a lot of planning and a lot of action.
Just because one person has a good idea, there still should be some room for critiques on it. I think [Renee Glover of the] Atlanta Housing Authority had a good idea; I'm not even criticizing that. We couldn't have housing projects [forever], we do need to give people a better quality of life, but the voucher program is still at the whim of whoever is receiving the voucher. Hope VI and Section 8 - these are still government programs, which, as we see now, those things are still at the whim of budgetary discretion.
Who are some of the people you interviewed besides residents?
We got a chance to talk to Kasim Reed before he became mayor, which was really cool. None of us thought he would actually run for mayor the following year. We talked to [then-city councilman] Cesar Mitchell, and we talked to [2009 mayoral candidate] Mary Norwood in the beginning. And those were the three people who were the easiest to talk to about issues surrounding gentrification. They didn't care about what the politics were, which was interesting. We thought because they are politicians that they would be afraid of it, but they just jumped right in.
As you said earlier, there are so many negative connotations built into the process of gentrification, but were there any positives you discovered about the outcome that surprised you?
For better or worse, the AHA's model did work because it decentralized poverty. And the neighborhoods around former housing projects got substantially better. It also mobilized people. Like, my mom is from the 'hood and it was positive to me to actually see people from Bowen Homes mobilize against something. You don't really see that anymore, especially in 2013. That the people in Bowen Homes, Bankhead and Hollywood Courts were actually mobilizing, particularly mothers and single women, that was rather significant because we just don't' see it anymore. That was one of the positives I took from it.
Why the title The Atlanta Way? Is it because this was the first model city for that?
It is the first model city and the first city in U.S. history to get rid of all its public housing. But just the mythology behind where [the expression] "the Atlanta way" came from. Some people say it came from the backroom deals made after the 1906 Atlanta race riots, some people say it came from Daddy King during the early Civil Rights era. The powers-that-be - the gentry, again - they made the decisions. That's something that has happened again and again in Atlanta - from the 1996 Olympics to the 1906 race riots. The reason why Atlanta didn't have much civil rights strife in the past, or why Mayors Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young, or Shirley Franklin and these guys were able to get things done is because of a lot of these backroom deals or the dealings with people. So we felt like that was the right title for it.
What do you think the city has lost most as a result of all the change?
The culture. And this is something I always tell people. The culture of Atlanta is something I'm not always comfortable with, but I'm coming to terms with it. I don't even mean like when people say the Black Hollywood experience, I mean the culture of Atlanta has changed. The culture that we developed, particularly after the Olympics came and beforehand, there was just a culture of blackness that you don't necessarily get.
When I look at New Orleans, that city is rooted in the black experience, good and bad. And I feel like Atlanta was getting there with the music, with the development, even with the way the buildings actually looked, the color and the art, Atlanta had a very green palette to it. A lot of the buildings were like green or off-green or red, and these colors and things and the people and the way they talked, that was becoming the culture. And good or bad, that is what makes a city great. Because living in New York, people always talk about how New Yorkers are like this or like that. When you come to Atlanta, you kinda don't get it. There was a point when we had it and then it just fell apart. And that's the thing I miss the most.
I do like the street art, I just wish a lot more of the street art was reflective of the good and bad. Living Walls has a lot of great things and I love what they do, but we need more people like Living Walls but more things that reflect on the Civil Rights era of Atlanta, even the pre-Civil Rights era of Atlanta. From the nadir period of Atlanta for black people during Reconstruction to the race riot to the mayoral tenure of 40-plus years of black mayorship, which has never happened any place in the developed world. Those things are cultural markers, even from William B. Hartsfield to Ivan Allen and what they've done, Ted Turner and what he's done. Those people aren't celebrated. We get a road and we might get their name on it but 10 years later the road changes. Those cultural markers that were really great are just being changed and whitewashed.
The history isn't always great, and sometimes it's uncomfortable, but with those uncomfortable things you actually have a culture and a history that people come to see. So when people see Atlanta, it has the feel of Atlanta - it has its own thing, its own shape, its own history and culture of the people. That's the one thing I would say I've missed completely from this change.
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