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An end and a beginning for residents


From the moment she moved into her apartment at Lafayette Courts, Christine Boyd wanted to leave.

The steam heat was impossible to regulate, and the plumbing backed up. The elevators were grimy, dark and often broken. The stairways were littered with crack vials and needles from drug deals, and gunfire was so common that her three little children would instinctively hit the ground.

It was the only home she had for six years, but Ms. Boyd is not sorry to see her place at Baltimore's public housing project go.

Housing officials are working out the final details to tear down Lafayette's six desolate and dangerous high-rise buildings Aug. 19.

If everything goes as planned, the brick towers will collapse within seconds at noon in a series of explosions orchestrated by Controlled Demolition Inc., a Baltimore County company known for imploding buildings. It will mark the start of an ambitious transformation of Lafayette, which deteriorated over the past 40 years to a point that it was considered the worst public housing in the city.

Over the next 2 1/2 years, the city intends to replace the 806 apartments with a smaller, more family-oriented community. There will be 210 rowhouses, some of which will be sold to low- and moderate-income families; a 110-unit senior building; and 18 apartments for teen-age mothers. There also will be a day-care center, recreation center and health clinic on the 21.5-acre site.

The reconstruction, expected to cost $115 million in city, state and federal money, marks a radical change in the city's effort to provide housing for the poor. City officials also hope it represents the first stage of a proposed $293 million overhaul Lafayette Courts and the three other isolated high-rise campuses.

For Ms. Boyd, 28, the demolition is an end and a beginning. Unable to afford a nicer place for years, she received assistance to move out a week ago from her dingy apartment on the eighth floor to a bright and comfortable flat nearby with a patio.

"I want to see it come down," she said. "I had some happy times in there with my family, but overall it was miserable. I was depressed. It was the way the building was -- the maintenance was bad, it was dirty, and it was like the drug dealers were running the place."

All but a handful of families have moved out of the high-rise buildings, which have been almost stripped by wrecking crews.

With their windows ripped out, the towers behind the main Post Office on the eastern edge of downtown are more noticeable than ever, a bleak symbol of Baltimore's failed public housing policies.

The remaining 150 families in the 17 low-rise apartment buildings also are being moved to new homes to clear the way for demolition. Only three of the original buildings will remain and be renovated as part of the new development.

More than 2,200 people, about 60 percent of them children, lived until recently in the deteriorating brick buildings that make up Lafayette Courts. Virtually all of the tenants were black, mostly single women with young children living on an average income of $5,800 a year, according to city housing authority figures.

The majority have left for other public housing, especially the nearby Latrobe, Somerset and Douglass developments and Flag House Courts, an equally blighted high-rise project the city wants to tear down. Only a small fraction received federal certificates to rent private housing, according to Housing Authority statistics.

Baltimore is the latest big city in the nation to tear down public housing considered beyond the point of repair. Philadelphia, St. Louis and Newark, N.J., demolished high-rise buildings this spring to rebuild less dense apartment complexes.

Critics here and elsewhere question whether demolishing rundown public housing is anything more than the latest fad. After all, in the 1950s and early 1960s, high-rise buildings were seen as the most modern and convenient housing.

At issue also is whether inner-city developments that combine subsidized rental and market-rate homes -- as is envisioned at Lafayette -- will fare any better with the continuing migration of the middle-class to the suburbs.

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III cites urbanologist Neal R. Peirce, who argues that a mix of subsidized and private housing is the best chance to "restore healthy community norms and end the terrible stigmatization of public housing."

Standing on the curb at Lafayette Courts one night last week, Mr. Henson pointed toward the steel fencing surrounding the open-air hallways on each high-rise floor.

"These buildings made people feel like they were in prison," he said. "There has to be a better way of life with housing that fits into the community."

The city is proceeding with the $6.7 million demolition in the face of a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU, fearful that the city will re-create pockets of poverty, has asked a federal judge to block plans to replace the lost high-rise housing by building apartments in mostly poor, segregated neighborhoods.

For some residents of Lafayette Courts, the overhaul promises a decent place to live for the first time in years.

Trina Blackston, who grew up at Lafayette in the 1960s and came back for what she thought would be a temporary stay 10 years ago, is packing up to go to a home near Patterson Park. She wants her children to have a more normal life, a chance to just play outside without fear.

"My little girl, she didn't want to go outside here because she was scared of the shooting," said Ms. Blackston, 34, a mother of four.

For other residents, the Housing Authority's rapid push toward the Aug. 19 implosion has been unsettling, even frightening.

Not everyone was lucky enough to get one of their three choices of a place to live, and a number of families have been shunted to high-rise towers at Flag House Courts near Little Italy.

"I don't want to be in a project," said Michelle Joyner, 25, who is moving unwillingly with her three little girls to Flag House. She was told it would be temporary, and was given a first-floor apartment, but Ms. Joyner says, "It's the same thing. I don't want to be part of it."

During her year in a third-floor apartment at Lafayette, Ms. Joyner's daughters, ages 4, 6, and 8, learned how to spell the obscene graffiti scrawled on the halls, she said.

Flag House and Lafayette Courts opened within months of one another in 1955. Both were built after World War II when the city cleared slums and replaced them with huge housing projects.

At the time, they were seen as a better alternative to the old rowhouses. Today, most are badly deteriorated, a haven for drug dealers and addicts, and known for violent crime. Most families living there are on welfare, and fewer than 10 percent of the women with children are married.

Ms. Blackston, who grew up at Lafayette in the 1960s, was shocked by the disrepair and the open drug dealing she found upon her return in 1985. The complex had fallen on hard times in the late 1970s and 1980s with the steady loss of jobs in the city and the growth of the heroin and cocaine trade.

Now, she says, she's ready to move on. At Lafayette, she got hooked on heroin and cocaine, and then overcame her addiction three years ago. She wants to become a drug counselor to help others, and she wants to buy a home of her own.

"I don't want to come back. I really don't," she said.

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