Evelyn Scipio moved to East Baltimore's Flag House Courts public housing project 30 years ago, a time when a move to the then-sparkling complex was seen as a step up for the poor but hopeful families that lived there.
Ms. Scipio reared five children at Flag. Photos of them and her seven grandchildren are proudly displayed on her coffeetable. Her youngest daughter, Robin Parke, 34, a state employee, visits her mother at Flag a couple times a week, and over time has grown increasingly distressed at her old neighborhood's deterioration.
Far from remaining a step on the road to the middle class, Flag became a bleak symbol of the urban underclass. Playgrounds that once were the sites of spirited all-day basketball duels, increasingly became the scenes of violent shootouts. The stairwells and vacant apartments in the project's three high-rise buildings became drug markets and shooting galleries. Squatters moved into vacant apartments and many people refused to move to Flag.
Some of that changed last June, when the Housing Authority of Baltimore City launched massive cleanups at Flag, sweeping drug dealers out of high rises, making long-neglected repairs and installing new security guards from a firm affiliated with the Nation of Islam. The changes have sparked new interest in the tenants' group and raised the profile of organizations from Narcotics Anonymous to the Girl Scouts, all of which meet at Flag's recreation center and Boys and Girls Club.
QUESTION: How do people react when you tell them you are from Flag?
Ms. Parke: They say, "Oh, my gosh, you came from down there?" The just don't believe it. At one time, you never heard about Flag. Being from Flag wasn't an issue, it was so nice.
If they asked for all the people who were born and raised down here to come forward, I think most people would be surprised. People wouldn't think they were from Flag. Somehow, people expect them to be far worse, not to be the regular people they are. But Flag's been home to a lot of people over the years.
Q: What was it like here years ago?
Ms. Scipio: You know, it wasn't bad like it is now. It was a nice little community. We had the [mobile] swimming pool that would come around for the kids. There were swings, camps, the Boy Scouts.
The managers and assistant managers at the time, they were concerned about people, about the place. You couldn't even leave the clothes outdoors to dry. Somebody in management would take them down. They said it was unsightly. They would even come around to your place to do inspections of your apartment.
Ms. Parke: I remember growing up here, and you could sleep out on the front and nobody would bother us. It just wasn't like that. Everybody was friendly and neighborly.
You could walk up to Baltimore Street in the middle of the night, and while there were some drugs out there, you didn't really worry about people bothering you. Usually, if there was somebody out there, you knew them from the neighborhood.
Now, when I walk out there, I try to act like I'm bad. I get out of my car and look at people like they better not mess with it.
Q: What changed?
Ms. Scipio: It was the drugs. They got those 'robo cops' [Housing Authority police]. I don't know why they have them; they don't do nothing. People are not screened any more, that's where the problem is.
The families are younger. The kids seem unsupervised. They have no more respect for you, no way.
Ms. Parke: Most of the housing projects are like the city that is being forgotten. Because they cut out a lot of budgets for recreation for kids, they are aimless. They don't have anything to do. So the first thing they do is either they get into drugs, start stealing from the store, breaking into cars, or breaking into people's homes.
Q: When did you start seeing things like vacant units commandeered by drug users?
Ms. Scipio: The last three or four years. It seems like the drug thing just got worse.
Q: What becomes of most young people raised at Flag?
Ms. Parke: Years ago, they were most definitely successful. I'd say most people I came along with are doing pretty well.
Q: What about those who are five or 10 years behind you?
Ms. Parke: There's a big difference. A lot of them are into drugs and junkies. I'd say there are about 25 percent who have done well, as far as little kids growing up. Others ended up caught up in drugs, dead or in jail.
Q: What changed in that short time span?
Ms. Parke: Parents used to care about their children. It is not where you were raised; it is how you were raised.
In the past, there were more activities to help a parent out; there were a lot of free things. If a parent couldn't afford for their kids to go to camp, it was free, so the children went. And there wasn't as much child abuse then. If there was, it wasn't shown. Also, the environment changed. A parent could be doing the best, but you don't know how your child is going to turn out, actually.
You don't know what kind of environment your child is going to be around, as far as other kids and how they influence them. You can grow up anywhere, the worst place, and still be raised up right. The opposite is also true.
Q: Has the cleanup made a difference?
Ms. Scipio: It really looks nice down here now. They got those Muslims down here patrolling. They walk around, they speak to people, they pick up trash, and it looks to me like they keep the buildings clean and safe. They don't let nobody in there who doesn't belong in there.
The other day a guy got in there, and those old Muslims were running their heads off.
Q: Will the improvements last?
Ms. Scipio: If the management stays on top of things.
Q: Do the NOI guards get more respect than the police?
Ms. Scipio: It looks like they do.
Q: Is the cleanup something the Housing Authority should have done a long time ago?
Ms. Scipio: Most definitely.