By 1988, the Lake in the Woods apartment complex in Lansdowne was one of the saddest, most worn down, rat-infested and crime-ridden places to live in Baltimore County, if not the worst.
Residents were afraid to go out at night. Crack dealers ruled Lakebrook Circle, where there were no street lights. Vandals repeatedly broke hall and stairway lights.
"It was a war zone," said Officer Robert E. Garber of the Community Oriented Police Enforcement unit, or COPE. Since 1988, COPE has been trying to make life better at the apartments.
Today, the long night at Lake in the Woods, now remodeled and renamed Circle Terrace, is coming to an end. New owners bought the 303-unit complex for $16.6 million in December 1991. Their $8 million renovation project is almost complete; the last of several speed bumps are being installed.
Now visitors who drive into Circle Terrace must show a photo identification before being allowed through the security gate. Children romp at one of three new playgrounds; teen-agers play basketball at a newly installed court; single mothers sit and talk with an on-site caseworker.
The children have started a recycling program; the new tenants' association meets regularly with the new owners and publishes a monthly newsletter.
Drugs and crime have not vanished from Circle Terrace, but their prevalence is down and the residents' spirits are up.
"When I moved here [in 1988] it was going right downhill," said Colleen Whitney, a 30-year-old single mother. She remembers when her son, Edward, now 9, would find hypodermic needles while playing.
Now, Miss Whitney, who is working toward an associate of arts degree from Catonsville Community College, said she feels safer and worries less about her son. The apartment complex has become a nice place to live.
"I feel like I'm not embarrassed to live here anymore," she said.
The long, hard fight to reclaim Circle Terrace began in December 1988, after an 18-year-old man was murdered in one of the apartments during an alleged argument over drugs.
Police responded to the community's call for help. They found that the low-income apartment complex, which was built in 1972, NTC had one of the highest rates of violent crime in the county.
Living conditions were deplorable. Most of the apartments were vacant. Many of those that were occupied had leaking windows and roofs, or doors that didn't lock or shut properly. Rats ran free. Sewage frequently backed up, spewing raw waste.
COPE began its offensive and started pressuring the old owners to fix the place. But the owners "didn't have the finances to bring things up to code," said Officer Garber. Part of the problem was things were so bad, no one wanted to live there.
At one time, said Officer Garber, two-thirds of the apartments were vacant.
After the county passed its Livability Code in 1989, which set minimum standards for housing conditions, county fire, health and building inspectors descended on Lake in the Woods.
They cited the owner for more than 2,000 violations and warned of potential fines of $50 per day for each violation.
Told to fix the complex or sell it, the old owner, Lake in the Woods Limited Partnership, sold the place to the Landex Corp., a Rhode Island firm that used a combination of private and public loans to buy and refurbish the apartments.
As part of the deal, Landex built a new community center and laundry room, and hired a full-time residents' ombudsman, Adrian Harpool.
Mr. Harpool, a longtime community activist from Washington, D.C., said he enjoys his new position because Landex is sincere about wanting to make things better for residents, and the tenants are responding.
"I've been involved in this type of project before," Mr. Harpool said. "But this is a little different. There's a real community atmosphere here."
Residents are already planning a summer picnic, and the children plan to take trips with the money they make from recycling.
Still, some problems remain at Circle Terrace.
Catherine Page, president of the tenants' association, said some residents do drugs, let their children run wild and don't care about the property.
"They've gotten safe, decent housing now," she said. "And they don't appreciate it."
Officer Garber, who said Circle Terrace is the longest-running COPE project in the county, plans to keep working at the complex, hoping residents will pitch in and call the police when they see drug deals or other crimes.
"You can only get so far, and you need those extra eyes," he said. "You need the community to get involved."