Talk to some of the old-timers along Annapolis' historic Clay Street, and they'll say the neighborhood has seen its ups and downs: Once a vibrant African-American enclave, replete with black-owned businesses, the neighborhood struggled in the wake of civil rights-era rioting and the crack epidemic.
The area is changing again, with a $24 million revitalization of the city's two oldest public-housing complexes, Obery Court and College Creek Terrace. The structures are being torn down and rebuilt with the help of a private developer.
Many in the community are hopeful that the plan will add vitality to the neighborhood, though other residents say they're wary of the role that the developer would play in managing public accommodations.
Kenny Whiteside, who grew up on Clay Street and owns a home there that was built by Habitat for Humanity, said he's glad to see change.
"I remember back in the day, we had a doctor's office, a theater, a hotel — we had everything in the neighborhood right here," Whiteside, 57, a maintenance worker, said on a recent afternoon while he washed his clothes at a Clay Street laundromat. "It definitely looks better. Anything's an improvement."
College Creek Terrace, one of the nation's oldest public-housing units, is now being torn down as the second phase of the project. Built in 1939 during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it had fallen into disrepair, with asbestos, lead paint and other problems. Obery Court was demolished and rebuilt for about $10 million into brick townhouse-style apartments last year.
The Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis, or HACA, partnered with Pennrose Properties, a Philadelphia-based development company that specializes in affordable housing. Once the project is complete, the entire 163-unit complex will be called Obery Court and will be managed by Pennrose.
Housing authority officials say the public-private partnership is the wave of the future for public housing, especially in a time of government austerity, when funding for such projects has virtually dried up. But others worry that the new management arrangement could serve as a mechanism to eventually force poor residents from the area, which sits in the shadow of the state capital's downtown — a tourist center.
Carl O. Snowden, chairman of the authority's board of directors, said the revitalization of the buildings has renewed a sense of civic pride among residents, who had long complained about deteriorating conditions at the complexes, including the lack of air conditioning during summer heat waves.
And a host of programs and partnerships, including with the Baltimore-based Sojourner-Douglass College, which also has a campus in Anne Arundel County, is providing residents with the skills to eventually move out of public housing, he said.
As part of the redevelopment, the housing authority also partnered with Habitat for Humanity, which built 12 homes along Clay Street. Those are now inhabited by former public-housing residents — a model officials hope to expand upon.
"College Creek Terrace and Obery Court is more than just about bricks and mortar," said Snowden. "We're not talking about managing nice-looking buildings. You're literally talking about transforming a community. For the last two years, we have been reshaping public housing by putting greater emphasis on community involvement and people taking more control over their lives."
Robert Eades, a former public-housing resident, has led opposition to the redevelopment project. He said he worries that Obery Court will eventually cease its connection with the housing authority and shift from federally subsidized public housing to "affordable housing," which would take on tenants with slightly higher incomes.
"The poor people that will benefit from public housing are being pushed out," said Eades. "If you go in Annapolis Gardens, it's predominantly Hispanic, and it used to be predominantly African-American. They're going to move the poor people of there and make it affordable housing — affordable to who? They're going to have these young people who work in restaurants downtown, as opposed to families in need."
Snowden vehemently denies that there's any effort afoot to push out poor residents. But he concedes that some bad feelings linger over a similar public-private arrangement before his tenure at the authority. In that instance, a different private management company reneged on several parts of the agreement at another development, Annapolis Gardens, leaving 56 residents without the opportunity to move back.
Snowden said as a result, HACA put together a better agreement with Pennrose.
"Robert Eades and these other activists have every right to be skeptical, because in the past there have been promises made and promises not kept," said Snowden. "I certainly intend to make sure that those commitments will be honored."
Patricia Savoy, who lived for 12 years at Obery Court, was moved to another public-housing development for a year during the construction. She moved last year into her new first-floor unit with three bedrooms and two bathrooms with "no problem," she said.
"It's a whole lot better," said Savoy, 48, who is disabled and lives with her grown son and grandchild. "Pay your rent on time, do what you got to do and don't be a nuisance, and you're fine."
Beatrice P. Smith, 90, and her husband, who has since died, were among the first residents of College Creek Terrace as newlyweds. Smith, who lives in her own home on Clay Street and is known affectionately in the neighborhood as "Miss Bea," has fond memories of the complex's early days.
"It was a beautiful place, honey," said Smith, a retired county worker who still does occasional seasonal work outside the home. "It was lovely. Beautiful flowers. When we were over there, we took pride and an interest in that place. People had flower gardens. We had a lovely playground in the center of College Creek Terrace. It was beautiful."
After moving to Eastport and then returning, she was shocked to see how the place had deteriorated: "And then years later, after we moved out, I just happened to pass through there. I couldn't believe my eyes. Oh Lord, have mercy! What a difference."
For Smith, who turns 91 next month, seeing the area turn around has been a delight.
Housing authority officials say that's the goal. And a recent HACA-sponsored forum aiming to connect residents with job training and other resources drew some 500 residents, Snowden said.
"We want to change how people view public housing both internally and externally," said Snowden. "We've had too many residents who come into public housing and don't have the tools to get out, and get trapped. Now we're giving them a plan, a pathway to get out of public housing. It's a finite amount of time; it's not forever."