Baltimore Sun

End of a public housing era

ON SATURDAY morning, the Flag House Courts public housing complex will no longer exist.

In not much more time than it takes to read a couple of paragraphs of this column, the three towers on the edge of Little Italy that for decades have housed hundreds of families will collapse into a heap of dust and rubble -- the last of the city's four family high-rise complexes to be toppled under a federal program to replace dilapidated buildings with viable communities.


Beginning in the summer of 1995, the demolitions -- of Lafayette Courts, Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes, all family high-rises, along with Hollander Ridge and Broadway Homes -- have become civic spectacles as well as cause for celebration.

What makes the demise of Flag House Courts noteworthy is not just that it's the last of the complexes to come down. More than any of the high-rises, Flag House Courts came to symbolize the problems with public housing in Baltimore and drove home the point to the city and the public that dramatic change was needed.


One of the most egregious events in the city's public housing projects over the past decade occurred at Flag House Courts in September 1992. James E. Young Jr., a 26-year-old police officer, was seriously wounded, shot in the head with his gun when he was overpowered while trying to make a drug arrest.

Young -- who is blind and walks with a noticeable limp as a result of the shooting -- plans to be at the 8 a.m. demolition, along with former Flag House Courts residents and the usual coterie of public officials.

"I guess it puts a closure to that part of my life," Young said earlier this week at the League for People With Disabilities in Northeast Baltimore, where he goes every weekday to lift weights.

A thin, frail man with a soft voice, Young doesn't even remember going to Flag House Courts that day and considers himself "blessed just being here."

"People living on top of people -- they should have been gone a long time ago, the projects," he said. "I'm glad to see it coming down, so people can find better living conditions."

Dorothy Scott, a 32-year resident of Flag House Courts and the head of the residents' council, finds it fitting that Young will attend the demolition, saying law-abiding residents felt a certain kinship with the officer.

"We were victims of violence, too," said Scott, 52, who came to Flag House Courts with her 14-month-old son, Derrick Turpin, in 1968 and lived there until last April. "We had to stay behind closed doors."

One morning in 1990, Scott came face-to-face with the menace when she was walking down the steps from her third-floor apartment. A young man put a gun in her face.


"He said, 'You can't come down here.' I said, 'I'm going down. I may not come back up, but I'm going down,'" she recalled. "They had drug deals, that's why you couldn't use the steps."

Not long after Young was shot, The Sun assigned a reporter to spend an extended period of time at Flag House Courts.

The resulting three-part series by Michael A. Fletcher was chilling. Fletcher described an "unrelenting procession" of heroin and cocaine buys in "dank, forbidding stairways." He said drugs and guns had "transformed Flag House into a place so wretched, where violence and death are so familiar, that it resembles a war zone."

He catalogued the physical deterioration: "sewage backups into bathtubs, huge populations of mice and maggots, broken windows, uncollected trash, walls rotted with water damage."

The title of the series: "No Way to Live."

Within a month, the city sent dozens of police officers and maintenance workers to evict drug dealers and clean and paint one of the high-rise towers. Guards from a company affiliated with the Nation of Islam began patrolling.


In October 1993, the city announced plans to demolish Flag, Lafayette, Lexington and Murphy.

Some believe the dealers and addicts caused the downfall of projects like Flag House Courts. Others said the projects themselves made failure inevitable.

In a speech here last year, then-U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo expressed a prevailing view that the high-rises "should never have been built."

"We're going to build communities instead of building institutions," he said. "We're going to treat people like people. We're going to give people something of quality and respect. They will return in kind what you give them."

Scott said that in the past couple of years Flag House Courts became a better place, as residents recaptured some of the spirit of community that existed when she first moved to the complex. But she said it was "too little, too late to make it work."

"You look at what the future holds, bringing them down is the best thing," said Scott.


"I've been waiting a long time for this day to come," she added. "I've watched all the others come down. I guess it's my turn."