Project's fall clears blight, offers chance to get it right

Michael Olesker

FROM LOMBARD Street, along the remains of the block once known as Corned Beef Row, you could see all the way to Little Italy yesterday.

For half a century, owing to the presence of the Flag House Courts housing project, this was considered utterly impossible. Yesterday, as all could finally see, they are one block apart.

So the city comes to another crossroads: not just to demolish what everyone agrees was a catastrophe, but to replace it with something swell, something that contributes to the joy of living in this city instead of one more failure of insight and imagination, something that might connect two of the city's most endearing landmarks, Little Italy and East Lombard Street, in a manner combining charm and safety and good cheer.

On Saturday, with about 2,500 people looking on, the city's last public high-rise -- three 13-story buildings -- was destroyed in a period of seconds.

Goodbye, and good riddance. Goodbye to a few generations of human isolation, narcotics traffic that took hold and never let go, and the destruction of families.

Fifty years ago, not one of the brilliant thinkers paid to envision such things saw this coming. In retrospect, everyone points to the obvious: In a far more racist time, many white people didn't care if black people lived in these giant file boxes built to store human lives. Out of sight, out of mind.

There is surely truth to this, and yet ...

Half a century later, we forget. The public housing projects were built when many black people in Baltimore lived in what were called alley houses, ramshackle dwellings in alleys barely fit for human habitation. Or they lived in rundown rowhouses abandoned by individual white families and subdivided for several black families to rent. They were places where the roofs leaked when it rained and the wind whistled through openings in the walls, and some of them had indoor plumbing and lots of them did not.

In the postwar years, plenty of people -- including plenty of black people -- saw public housing projects as a fresh start. The places were clean, they had clear views of the city, they had indoor plumbing and central heating. They were a casting-off of the old ways, the final death knell for the miserable old alley houses.

In a time when black people were just beginning to get a shot at decent jobs, and then at public schooling, and then at public places such as restaurants and movie theaters, such housing seemed at least a healthy step away from the slums that had preceded them.

Nobody in Washington saw the thing that was coming -- nor did a mayor of Baltimore named D'Alesandro who OK'd the Flag House Courts for the block directly between the Little Italy where his family lived across the years and the Lombard Street he had known intimately since his childhood.

When the Flag House projects were built, Little Italy was more than the zesty restaurant colony it has become -- it had a street corner culture built on families spilling out of their rowhouse homes at all hours, and school kids all over the place, and their parents sitting on front steps into the late hours.

And Lombard Street a block away was the home of not only delicatessens and bakeries and grocery stores, but sidewalks filled with shoppers, and synagogues and curbside philosophers and slicers of corned beef who threw in a little discussion of the Good Book for the same price.

Yesterday, as the dust settled and a bright morning sun sparkled off the rubble that had been the Flag House high-rise, there were only a couple of Lombard Street delis remaining, and a couple of Asian grocery stores with iron grates over the fronts.

Where does this neighborhood go from here? For at least a year now, as planners and architects have debated the post-Flag House environment, there has been talk of high-income condominiums to be built in the area. Also, talk of bringing in a new era of eateries for Lombard Street.

Little Italy has been so successful as a restaurant colony that any time space becomes available in the neighborhood, everybody thinks of food instead of lodging. But for 50 years, nobody has thought about developing that one block just north of the neighborhood.

Initial city plans call for a 338-unit rowhouse and apartment community there -- rentals and ownership properties. But Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano says financing issues are so complex that no construction will begin for at least a year.

It leaves the obvious question: Will this be one more round of failure, or do we have planners with imagination and a sense of history? Will the new development be a place of charm and safety? Do they understand the grand possibilities here -- not just a new development, but a linking of two venerable and treasured communities, and a corridor of fresh new energy?

And, in the rubble of the Flag House project, can a development be built that will house people of all backgrounds and all skin colors, who will put the sins of the past, and the mistakes and shortsightedness, behind us? Or have we learned nothing at all in 50 years?
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