They beamed and wept, lingering over plush rose carpeting, marveling at the size of their walk-in closets, fingering brass doorknobs.
These places are where their children will grow up, where daughters will one day dress for weddings, where they will celebrate every Christmas, where they likely will grow old.
The smiles and tears belong to 27 Baltimore families, as do the homes to which they received the keys yesterday -- homes built by volunteers, workers and the families themselves on block-long Leslie Street in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.
Their celebration yesterday marked the completion of the largest single project of Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, which has also renovated about 100 houses in the neighborhood.
The Leslie Street project is seen as a turning point, and a triumph. Before the new homes, the site in the center of the neighborhood had come to signify everything that had gone wrong -- vacant houses, drug dealing, trash and rats. Children used to avoid it. They called it "The Pit."
"I can think back to when all the units were condemned," said Talmadge "Fitt" Bennett, Habitat's coordinator of volunteers, who grew up in the area. Friday night, during the last flurry of work, he walked out into the night and saw shiny windows and new sidewalks.
"It just looked so beautiful," he said.
Through the careful work of Habitat architect Mary McDonnell, the street's intimate feel has been restored. Its two lines of brick homes are close enough that neighbors can call across to each other from their stoops. Trees will be planted. Space for a garden has been cleared on one end of the block.
Originally, 52 homes just 12 feet wide were packed onto Leslie Street. The new rowhouses are relatively spacious 18 1/2 -footers with 1,100 square feet.
"Everything works," said Clint Carter, 40, testing the light and fan over his stove. His wife, Joyce, had already put out the new "Welcome" mat on their front step. In the basement, he pointed at an area: "I might add a pool table here."
Across the street, Shawtez Johnson, a 10-year-old, had found her heaven. "My own room," she said softly. Her mother, Jane Johnson, fussed over new black-and-white curtains in the kitchen.
"I plan on being here for the rest of my life," said Johnson, who grew up in this neighborhood. Every day for the past 19 months, as the construction wore on, she rode past her new place to see it, even if nothing had changed. She and her three children have been living in nearby public housing, where they have all witnessed shootings.
"I feel more safe and comfortable here," Johnson said.
Years ago, it started out like that. Children used to play football on the narrow street or use crates to fashion basketball hoops. But in the 1980s, people started moving out, and addicts and drug dealers slowly took over. Kids started making detours around Leslie Street.
By 1989, when an elderly woman was robbed and beaten, the older families had moved away. Eventually, there was only one family left, the Crosbys, whose matriarch refused to budge. A son, Lucky Crosby, 31, said he and his siblings used to climb onto the roofs of empty houses and throw bricks down on the cars of prostitutes or drug dealers to scare them away.
Finally, even the Crosbys left -- after 38 years in their little house at 1523 Leslie St. In 1995, all the houses were demolished. Former residents watched and cheered -- even before they knew that the Habitat project would bring rebirth.
The infrastructure was so deteriorated that Habitat had to replace it all: water mains, utility wiring, the sidewalk and even the street itself.
Major financial contributions came from Baltimore's Housing Authority, the Enterprise Foundation and the Baltimore Community Development Financing Corp. Hundreds of people and organizations donated funding, labor and materials.
New Song Community Church started Sandtown Habitat in 1989, part of a holistic approach to Christian community development, including education, health and arts programs. A new school and community center, along with another 75 houses, are planned by the end of 2000.
Each of the families, all low-income, put about 430 hours of work into the homes, and they get the houses at cost -- about $40,000. They have 20-year, zero-interest mortgages. Many said they will continue to work on other homes in the community.
Yesterday afternoon, white carnations pinned to their Sunday-best clothes, they stood proudly on their front steps -- homeowners all.
Pub Date: 12/06/98