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End of Lafayette Courts stirs some memories


In East Baltimore, the gutted shells, the skeletal remains, of what had once been the Lafayette Courts public housing project tower over us like a high-rise ghost town -- empty windows and exposed cinder blocks and great piles of bricks and debris and trash.

It is a steamy, hot day beneath a sickly, yellow sky. The six buildings of the Lafayette Courts public housing project cast no shadows.

"Personally," says Sandra Domneys grimly, "I'm glad they're tearing it down." We were standing on Ms. Domneys' porch in the 1000 block of Low St. Ms. Domneys and her children live in a one-story low-rise apartment building that sits like a shoe box at the foot of one of the abandoned high rises.

"You won't miss it?" I ask.

"No way," she says. "It got to be nothing but problems -- all that drug dealing and stuff. It just wasn't safe. Seems like children were getting hurt over there all the time."

"You don't have any good memories of the place?"

Ms. Domneys turns and looks over at the nearest building, a few yards away across a cracked and broken basketball court. She is 42 and has raised two daughters and two boys. She has lived in and around the housing project for 22 years. Her four children were born and raised in the building nearest us. Many of her closest friends lived there.

"I guess I do have some good memories," she says at last. "They used to have a really nice basketball league right over on that court there. Never any problems. Everybody knew everybody. I've still got some of the plaques my boys won. I remember we used to get together and have crab feasts and cookouts over in the tot lot. We used to have outdoor parties. Sometimes, we'd all get together and order pizzas and entertain the children.

"I guess it was really nice a lot of times," Ms. Domneys continues. "We had some really good times. There were some good people there."

This is the kind of stuff I wanted to hear. For better or worse, Lafayette Courts used to constitute a community. Babies were born there. People met, courted each other. Fell in love. There had to be triumphs and failures -- all of the peaks and valleys that make up the fabric of life. It is hard to see any community wiped out of existence without at least one kind word about it.

"I had apartments at 11-D, 9-K, and 5-E," Ms. Domneys volunteers, getting into the spirit of the discussion. "I even went over and got myself a brick from the building."

Not long ago -- as recently as March, actually -- some 565 families lived at Lafayette Courts. Almost all of those families consisted of single women and their children, according to city housing officials. Almost all of the people who lived there were black. The average household had an income under $5,000 a year.

But the new trend in public housing is to tear down public high-rise buildings and break up such heavy concentrations of poverty. Philadelphia, St. Louis and Newark have taken this approach, replacing their 40-year-old high rise buildings with single-family units for low- and moderate-income families.

Warehousing thousands of people into high rises created a demand for services that overwhelmed the surrounding communities, officials now believe. Homeowners fled to the suburbs. People in the projects became isolated politically, economically, and socially.

Now, Baltimore plans to replace the six high rises and 14 of the 17 low-rise buildings at Lafayette Courts with town homes, a medical facility, housing for the elderly and a restaurant.

"We are looking for a 60 percent reduction in the population density there," says Zack Germoff, a spokesman for the city's housing department.

"There's going to be some very smartly configured town homes with backyards and everything. The goal is for people to drive down the street and not be able to tell which is public housing and which isn't."

The city hopes to demolish its other public high-rise buildings at Lexington Terrace, Flag House and Murphy Homes. Lexington Terrace is next on the list.

The plan seems like an ideal way of breaking up the urban ghettos in Baltimore and most other cities.

But then, I suspect that each of our country's great urban renewal efforts looked ideal on paper.

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