Amid Lexington Terrace's squalor, Reno spies hope U.S. officials tour city's public housing


Attorney General Janet Reno and U.S. Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros talked about sowing the seeds to rebuild the nation's blighted inner-city neighborhoods yesterday as they stopped to admire a flower garden that was once a vacant lot in West Baltimore.

On a tour capped by a visit to one of the city's worst public housing projects, the national leaders shook hands with residents, inspected new homes, walked past horse-drawn fruit carts and said they'd found a national model for urban renewal.

"It's not going to happen overnight," Ms. Reno cautioned. "I think there's considerable hope. I think there's positive changes. I think there's still some despair."

Their two-hour trip through the streets of Sandtown-Winchester and into Lexington Terrace ended with Housing Authority Executive Director Daniel P. Henson III announcing that a dilapidated tower there will be closed in two weeks. It will be the second 110-unit tower to close there this year.

Mr. Henson said he will vacate and board up the building at 770 W. Saratoga St. because it would be too costly to heat and maintain in the winter.

A panel will be appointed tomorrow to examine the future of the Lexington Terrace-Poe Homes development, he said. The city also is applying for nearly $50 million in 1994 federal funds to tear down five of the six high-rise towers at Lafayette Courts in East Baltimore and replace them with garden apartments.

The changes were applauded by Mr. Cisneros, who made an unannounced visit to Lexington Terrace in February and was shocked to see the peeling paint, dark stairwells and leaking plumbing.

"There is progress being made here," the secretary said yesterday. "I leave here with a very clear sense that we must do better by people who live in public housing."

Lexington Terrace's graffiti-scarred towers have come to symbolize the decay that has set into public housing high-rises around the country, Mr. Cisneros said yesterday.

Yet he, the attorney general and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke left on a positive note. All three said they were impressed by the community's commitment to making Sandtown-Winchester a safe, clean and affordable place to live again.

After walking past the nationally acclaimed Nehemiah Housing, a $23 million homeownership project created by the Enterprise Foundation and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, Mr. Cisneros said he saw it as a model for community empowerment. He and Ms. Reno want to ensure close community ties are "worked into the larger federal rubric" in creating empowerment zones, Mr. Cisneros said.

President Clinton is pushing to expand tax credits for the working poor and encourage businesses to locate to blighted, crime-ridden neighborhoods. Also, 100 designated "enterprise communities" would share preferential status for federal loans and community policing subsidies.

Mayor Schmoke and Mr. Henson said yesterday they plan to apply for the empowerment zone loans. Even though some $66 million has already been spent in Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood is a leading contender in the list of potential communities, they said.

"This is one of the most difficult neighborhoods -- they didn't choose an easy place," said Mr. Cisneros, who added that he's looking at giving the project "tens of millions" in additional HUD support.

He invited Dr. Franklyn Jenifer, president of Howard University, to look at starting a similar effort in Washington.

Yesterday's tour was symbolic of the powerful forces that have converged on Sandtown-Winchester to try to break the cycle of poverty.

In the past four years, public and private groups have joined with the residents to wage a modern war on poverty.

The goal is ambitious -- to transform the 71 blocks bounded by Lafayette Avenue, North Avenue, Monroe Street and Pennsylvania and Fremont avenues.

Half the 10,305 residents live in poverty. The streets are lined with 670 boarded-up homes. Students score below city averages on standardized tests and often drop out.

But there's been significant progress. Mayor Schmoke has promised to renovate or tear down the vacant homes, such as the one two doors down from Diane Bryant, a mother of two.

"Other than the vacant places, it's better. It's cleaner, and they're doing a lot of things for the kids," she said.

Among the public-private efforts are the Nehemiah homes that were sold to low- and moderate-income families.

Marlene Brown, a 50-year-old secretary, proudly showed off her new home to Ms. Reno yesterday. She said she never expected to own a home, let alone one so nice.

Also, the federal government, with some help from state and city funds, spent $13.3 million modernizing the Gilmor Homes project.

Other problems are being tackled, too.

Sandtown is trying to reduce its high infant mortality rate with an innovative program to get women proper prenatal care.

Earlier yesterday, Ms. Reno reiterated her support of community-based law enforcement at a national meeting of victims' advocates at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel.

She ended the day by signing an autograph for 12-year-old Dajuan Prince, who lives in Lexington Terrace and wants to be an FBI agent.

"Stand tall. Do right and seek justice for all," she wrote.

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