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Once respectable Flag House project enmeshed in nightmare of violence

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They come in an unrelenting procession. They march to th front of a building, have a few hushed words with a young man, push through the turnstiles, past the security booths, past the laughing children playing in the hallways and into the dank, forbidding stairways where they buy cocaine and heroin.

The march continues day in and day out at Baltimore's Flag House Courts public housing project, virtually around the clock. And with the drugs come the guns. Together, they have transformed Flag House into a place so wretched, where violence and death are so familiar, that it resembles a war zone.

There are combatants at Flag -- people like 18-year-old Bobby Montgomery, who shot one man in the mouth two years ago and now is accused of shooting another man in the back.

There are civilians -- like Sterling Willis and his wife, Evelyn, who have retreated into their apartment and forbidden their children to play outside, hoping to better their chances of survival.

There are collaborators -- like Tony Partlow, a tenant and drug addict who deplores the violence but nevertheless has helped the dealers by working as a lookout or lending them his apartment.

And there are many, many casualties -- most of them young men who fall in neighborhood combat. But there are others, like 63-year-old George W. Thomas, who was nearly killed at his front door in September by a stray gunshot. Or 6-year-old Chastity Oliver, who still trembles at night because a bullet pierced the wall of her grandmother's apartment. Or city police Officer James E. Young Jr., who was critically wounded in September while trying to make a drug arrest.

Drugs and the culture they foster are the defining fact of life at Flag, an East Baltimore complex of deteriorating brick buildings and 2,000 residents, two-thirds of them children, near Little Italy. For a month, a Sun reporter visited Flag daily and observed how deeply drugs have saturated the neighborhood. Almost every tenant has found a way to live with that reality -- some by surrendering to it, some by hiding from it, and many more by keeping silent, never acknowledging what they see or know.

"If you go door-to-door, you'll meet a lot of good people here," Mrs. Willis says. "But everybody keeps to themselves because they are afraid. This is a community absent of community involvement."

Indeed, the rules of ordinary neighborhoods hardly apply here. With its three high-rises and 133 low-rise apartments packed into 11 acres, Flag is more like a small city, striking in its lawlessness. Squatters have seized vacant apartments, and the number of official tenants -- 1,200 -- is swelled by people illegally doubling up.

While junkies and crack addicts and dealers come from all over Baltimore, the core of the drug problem is among the residents. There is widespread tolerance of the trade, as even the most ardent opponents of drugs are reluctant to report a son or daughter or neighbor to authorities.

For their part, the thin ranks of security personnel and housing police officers mostly look the other way, either too overwhelmed or frightened to impose order.

In its misery, Flag is not much different from some of the city's other high-rise public housing projects, where the promise of a decent place to live has become a bitter disappointment. A threatened rent strike over chronic maintenance problems at the Lexington Terrace complex last fall prompted city officials to visit. While touring Lexington, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke heard tale after tale about crime. Soon after, he moved forward on a plan to empty one of the high-rise buildings.

By the time anyone pays attention to Flag, however, it may be too late.

"It's bad," says Mr. Thomas, who lived at Flag 25 years before leaving in March. "It's like when a fire gets too far gone. You can't put it out."

'It was nice'

Mr. Thomas can remember a time when life at Flag was far different. He and his wife, Juanita, arrived in 1968 and reared seven children in a four-bedroom apartment.

"It was lovely here when we moved in," recalls Mr. Thomas, a former truck driver. "We would sit out front on the lawn in the evenings. It was nice."

When Flag opened in 1955, it was hailed as a fine alternative to the dilapidated row homes it replaced. The $4.5 million complex included three 12-story towers, open-air hallways, neatly aligned town homes and playgrounds and common areas. Many apartments even had views of the harbor.

"Years ago, they kept this place up," Mr. Thomas says. "If you made too much noise they called you in and you all had to sit down and talk it over."

As a result, Flag attracted many tenants like Mr. Thomas: poor, hard-working people hoping to move up into the middle class, planning to use public housing as a temporary refuge. Almost half the tenants back then had jobs.

Mr. Thomas says a single city police officer and his dog patrolled Flag and were able to keep things in check. "He never had any problems," Mr. Thomas says. "Everyone respected him."

Vivian Gibson, a teacher's aide in a Baltimore public school, has similar memories of Flag's past. "I raised three kids down here in the projects who turned out OK," she says.

Ms. Gibson, 57, has a ground-floor apartment in one of the high-rise buildings. It has a tiny lawn and its own outside entrance. It costs her $596 a month -- enough to easily afford a nice apartment almost anywhere in Baltimore. (The same Flag unit could cost another tenant much less, since public housing rents vary according to income.) But Flag has been Ms. Gibson's home since 1964, and she won't consider leaving, even though it is now a dangerous place. Instead, she adjusts her daily routine to remain as safe as possible. "I rarely go inside the building," she says.

Longtime residents and Housing Authority social workers blame Flag's deterioration on the disappearance of many low-skill jobs in the early 1980s and the explosion of drug use, especially cocaine and then crack. The increasing use of guns by teen-agers compounded the problem.

"I'd say the real decline has been occurring probably for a decade," says Dr. Samuel B. Little, assistant director of family support services for the Housing Authority. "It is sort of like a cancer. First there is a growth. You think a little treatment . . . will make it go away, but it doesn't and then you find yourself having to do major surgery."

By 1991, 86 percent of the families at Flag received public assistance. Many of Flag's new residents come from homeless shelters or from being doubled up with other families, says Susan B. Pierce, the Housing Authority's manager at Flag. Few others agree to live there.

"A significant number of residents are drug users," Dr. Little says.

Mr. Thomas has seen the long decline at Flag, but he never felt threatened by it until September. Then, early one evening, he was shot outside his front door as he and three teen-age grandchildren returned with ice cream from a nearby store.

When the gunfire erupted, the youngsters scattered. Mr. Thomas was hit in the back and critically wounded. Gasping for breath, he stumbled through his front door before collapsing. His wife called an ambulance as the assailant tracked another man, his target, through Flag.

Across the street, a group of children were playing around a wooden picnic table near Beverly Williams' apartment. As the gunfight came their way, the children piled into the apartment and hit the floor.

Ms. Williams remembers shaking amid the madness -- the gunshots, the scrambling children, her window breaking from a bullet that ricocheted off a light fixture before embedding itself in a wall.

For both Mr. Thomas and Ms. Williams, the shooting has forever altered their view of the neighborhood.

"After they shot through my house I put chairs to my door at night and I was afraid to go outside," Ms. Williams says. A month passed before she stopped barricading herself in her home. And her 6-year-old granddaughter, Chastity Oliver, who was caught in the gunfire, is still upset.

"My granddaughter cries when I carry her to the store at night," Ms. Williams says. "If there is a crowd of boys on the street, she is scared to go out with me. She thinks they are going to start shooting."

Police charged Bobby Montgomery, a Flag resident, with attempted murder and handgun charges in connection with the incident. Montgomery, who was convicted of shooting another man in the mouth in 1991, is in the Baltimore City Detention Center awaiting trial set for later this month.

For some families trying to make it at Flag, avoiding the drug culture can require desperate measures.

Sterling Willis issued a public warning: "Before you drink, snort, or shoot your drugs in this little area, take a moment to think about the big guy that lives here," says a note posted on his front door. "I really don't think you actually want to find out if this is a joke or not. I just might open the door before you finish reading this!"

Mr. Willis, 27, a strapping man who played football in high school, says he put the sign up a few months ago. He'd tried to discourage people from congregating outside his door by pouring a caustic mixture of bleach and ammonia on the steps. The sign was a last resort after he and his family routinely found discarded hypodermic syringes, used condoms, empty crack vials and human and animal feces as they stepped out the door.

Once, someone tried to kick his way into the apartment in the middle of the night. "They must have thought it was vacant," he says.

Mr. Willis, who does not work because of a disability, lives with his wife, a first-year community college student, and four young children in a second-floor apartment near the staircase.

"You can hear people who live here coming up the steps. They're like,'Yo! Is it all right to come up? Yo! Is it OK?' I've done it myself," Mr. Willis says. "And when you come up the steps you see one guy holding the drugs and another holding the gun. You can't even get in and out of here when you want to on the steps because the drug boys stop you from going on them when they are doing their trade."

Many children at Flag ride their scooters and tricycles along the long open-air corridors outside the apartments. But not the Willis' four children, ages 2 to 8.

"We can't play out here because of all the shootings and stuff," says 8-year-old Sterling Willis III. "The only time when we really go out is when my parents take me to the park. But we can't do that here, because of all the glass."

'Money is every reason'

Many of Flag's drug dealers are teen-agers, and for them the trade has an inescapable lure.

"It was a way to make a bunch of money for something that is simple to do," says James, an 18-year-old high school junior who asked that his last name not be used. He has dealt on and off at Flag since he was 14. "Money is every reason."

A former Cub Scout and outstanding athlete through elementary and junior high school, he says all the anti-drug messages he heard growing up faded in the face of fast money.

"Hey, if you don't have the clothes or whatever you want . . . you'll do it," he says.

Even the constant threat of violence does not deter him. "I was scared once, when I got robbed," he says. The robbery was not much, he explains, just some older guys from the neighborhood who strong-armed him. He says they got no more than $100 worth of drugs.

He began his career as a runner, shuttling drugs from a storage place somewhere at Flag to waiting buyers. The pay was $100 a week, an amount he later deemed too small. "So I quit -- for a while."

He got back in the trade a year later. This time he got a dealer to give him bundles of drugs on credit, which proved to be a far more profitable arrangement. At his peak -- which he says lasted less than a month -- he made $3,000 a week.

The money vanished when he was arrested on drug charges last year. James avoided jail then, getting probation.

Now, he says, the birth of his son a week before Easter is making him question whether he wants to stay in the business. "I got a lot to think about," he says.

'Catch you at your lowest'

Like James, many of those selling drugs at Flag are residents. They can find plenty of helpers at Flag.

Most days, a 50-year-old drug addict stands in front of one of the high-rise buildings, steering other users into his apartment where they buy needles or shoot up for a small fee. He receives 100 needles a month for insulin injections to control his diabetes.

His wife and five of his children, who do not use drugs, also live in the apartment.

"This is how I make money," he says. He sells most of his needles for $1 each. "I don't have it in me to rob people or whatever. I'm not that kind of person."

Another tenant, Tony Partlow, also cooperates with the dealers. For a while, the 34-year-old cocaine and heroin addict turned his one-bedroom apartment over to drug dealers for $50 a day. He says he did it because he was desperate for drugs.

"I let them use the house and they just took over completely," he says. "They were bringing the freak girls [prostitutes] up there. They were wrestling in the living room, and going in the fridge. When I tried to cool them out, they just told me to shut up."

Many times, he told himself that he had enough. He has been in and out of treatment programs. But like many people at Flag, Mr. Partlow says he is weary of the drug trade but is ensnared in it at the same time.

"A whole lot of people in the projects mess around with drugs," he says. "If they ain't shooting, they're bipping [snorting] or hitting the pipe."

After swearing the dealers off, Mr. Partlow nonetheless agrees sometimes to be a lookout -- hour after hour watching for cops through the chain-link fence enclosing the building's hallways. He says he's paid $25 and a capsule of cocaine for a 14-hour shift.

"They catch you at your lowest," he explains.

Perhaps Mr. Partlow's employers are being too cautious. Scores of tenants say the housing police and security people tend to look away, rather than deal with the obvious drug activity.

People entering the high-rises at Flag must pass through turnstiles at the main entrances. Next to them are security booths staffed by private guards. The windows of the booths are coated in reflective paper, which keeps the guards, who worry about their safety, anonymous.

Rarely is anyone stopped. Visitors also have free access through fire exits that more often than not swing open. Residents assume the guards are scared to control access to the buildings.

"You might as well say there is no security whatsoever," says Diane Horton, a high-rise resident. "I've never seen the people in the booth stop anybody."

The Housing Authority has a 62-member police force to protect all of Baltimore's public housing developments, which have a total of 18,088 units. Housing officials concede that the number is woefully inadequate. But they also say tenants must do more )) to make their community safe.

"Drug trafficking will not cease until families communicate to family members at the family level that they find these behaviors unacceptable," says Danise Jones-Dorsey, acting deputy executive director of the Housing Authority. "If I posted a sentry at each flight of the staircases and every corner of the building, this activity would continue."

Every so often police flush squatters out of vacant apartments, residents say. But they do not patrol the buildings on a regular basis.

A favored Flag drug hangout is the first block of S. Exeter St., a raggedy commercial strip that cuts through the middle of the development. Every day after the stores close, dealers crowd the sidewalks competing to peddle their wares.

"Green top," whispered one man on a recent night, offering his brand of heroin.

Another offered cocaine. "Got the girl, got the Shirley."

A guy in a wheelchair sat in the middle of the sidewalk displaying a capsule of white powder.

After a while, a housing police cruiser passed about a half block from the action. The driver pointed the car toward the scene. But the officers never stepped out, and the bazaar continued.

The constant dealing makes Flag one of Baltimore's most dangerous neighborhoods. Housing police say last year there was one serious crime for every 10 residents. The numbers would be even higher if violence on nearby streets was included in the record-keeping. Most residents can tick off a long list of victims of murder and other violence. They say a lot of other crime goes unreported at Flag, where the sound of gunfire or a loud fight is so common that often no one calls police.

On a cold winter day, a curious crowd gathered around William Chapman, 21, as he was stretched in a concrete alley just off East Lombard Street. He had a bullet wound in his back.

A woman stood right over him, fighting back tears. But other onlookers appeared more detached, coolly taking in the scene the way other people might rubberneck at a car wreck.

As for Mr. Chapman, his head was up, his teal baseball cap was still in place, and he seemed very angry.

"I'm alright," he barked at emergency workers. It was not yet evident that the bullet had damaged Mr. Chapman's spinal cord, as police would later report. They found no motive for the shooting.

Leslie Jones immediately recognized the victim. After pausing a moment, she shook her head and walked on. She had seen similar scenes many times before.

"There are a lot of people who die around here," she says.

Back at her battered Flag apartment, Ms. Jones showed her collection of obituaries charting the violent demise of people from Flag. She saves the names because she thinks few others will. "Even if a kid was no good, he was somebody's son," she says.

Her yellowed newspaper clippings are a roll call of the dead: JTC Ernest David Tyson Jr., 16, 1990. Sheltry Holmes Jr., 22, 1991. Alexander Smith, 23, 1992. Jack D. Lewis, 22, 1992. Kavin Durrell Waterson, 20, 1993.

She says many others have died during that time. Ms. Jones has a large collection of copies of poems and personal notes she has written to comfort survivors of Flag's violence. Like many there, she has been touched personally by the violence.

Three years ago, the sound of gunfire echoing in a stairway snapped her into action early on Christmas Eve. Rushing to her window, she saw her 17-year-old son, Sheron C. Jackson, and another boy running up the street. "I thought they were running away from the bullets," she recalls.

Ms. Jones ran down the steps of her apartment and into the stairway. On the second-floor landing lay Russell Scott Edmonds, 25, barely conscious with bullet wounds in his back and arm. She had known him since he was a little boy, watched him grow up to be a thief and drug dealer.

She reached down to cradle the dying man, holding him in the dark while waiting for help. She told him regretfully, over and over, that she knew he would end his days in trouble.

When police came to arrest his killer five weeks later, Ms. Jones realized the full impact of the shooting. The detectives came to her door. Sheron, her oldest son, was led away in handcuffs and charged with murder.

Tomorrow: Poor maintenance, dangerous conditions.

FLAG HOUSE

Opened for occupancy: Nov. 14, 1955

Total acres: 11.3

Address of maintenance office: 110 S. Exeter St.

Dwelling unit information:

Total units: 487

Family low-rise units: 133

High-rise units: 354

Vacancies: 109

Three high rise buildings: 107 Albermarle St. 26 S. Exeter St. and 127 S. Exeter St.

Average rent: $132.90 a month*

Average resident income: $6171.00 (gross)*

Receiving public assistance: 86.2%*

* as of 6/30/91

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