There’s a cleared piece of land off Caroline Street in Southeast Baltimore that once held a portion of the Perkins Homes, a 1940s public housing project that has pretty much come to the end of its life.
A new, $30 million development will replace the mini-city of boxy, brick, utilitarian homes designed by social reformers nearly 85 years ago. The idea was to clear out some of Baltimore’s most depressed housing slums and create a clean and up-to-date housing for working people. It was one of several around the city.
These projects were racially segregated. There were white homes and Black homes. The World War II-era projects were named Perkins, Poe, McCulloh, Latrobe, Gilmor, Douglass and Armistead Gardens.
Their builders faced wartime building material shortages. Electrical wiring and plumbing fixtures were scarce. The projects were not all finished as quickly as forecasts projected them to be, but they filled up as war workers poured into Baltimore from the MidAtlantic area.
Perkins Homes was built specifically for white World War II workers. The idea was that, as this neighborhood was not so far from the harbor, the wage earners could walk to the old ferry boat that would take them to their jobs and the shipyard in Fairfield that was then turning out Liberty Ships and other vessels at a fast clip. News reports said that the heads of household at Perkins Homes were shipyard workers.
This became known as one of Baltimore’s projects and this project was named for Clarence W. Perkins. Born in Chestertown on the Eastern Shore and a Washington College graduate, Perkins received a University of Maryland School of Law degree. He served a term in the Maryland Senate from 1904 to 1906 and was thereafter known as Sen. Perkins even though he’d long left Annapolis.
After the Baltimore City Council created a Baltimore Housing Authority in 1937, Perkins became its executive director. He only served a short while before his 1939 death.
City officials quickly named the area bounded by Broadway, Bank, Pratt and Eden streets after him. In slum clearance parlance, it had been known by the utilitarian term, “Area F.”
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Not everyone was happy about the use of federal money to come into a city and tear down existing neighborhoods for wartime housing. Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings said it “smacked of socialism” in a Sun article. Progressives thought it was a humane way to give people homes at a subsidized monthly rental.
The pods of houses were surrounded by courts and every so often there was a playground. They rented up quickly and no one ever looked back.
These housing projects were not all in Baltimore City. Contemporary with Perkins was a public housing project constructed for Black families in Turner Station near the Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant.
It was there that Henrietta Lacks, her husband and family lived. The Lacks apartment is still there and was recently renovated — and it’s still doing what it was built for — providing housing.
As the Supreme Court and other entities challenged racial segregation in housing, African American families began moving into Perkins Homes in the 1950s.
Prosperity comes and goes and land values rise and fall. Before demolition began on some of Perkins Homes, this 1940s-era neighborhood was aging poorly. Its replacement promises to be series of new housing units with some first floor shops. In all, there are to be 500 market-rate houses, 475 subsidized units and 650 very low-income houses on the site.
This is a large project and one that neighborhood watchers should keep an eye on in 2022. It promises to keep a momentum going that has threaded together places such as Fells Point, Harbor East, Harbor Point and Little Italy.