From high-rise to 'a heavenly place' in Mount Washington

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Their days of living in Baltimore public housing were fraught with fear. Shootings. Killings. Drugs. All of it took place just outside their front door.

But the Neal family persevered because Isaac Neal refused to give up hope. In 1995 he signed on as a plaintiff in the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit accusing the city and federal government of failing to dismantle a segregated public housing system.

Neal and his family have already benefited from an earlier partial consent decree in the suit that forced public housing residents like them to be moved into middle-class, mostly white areas of the city.

In May, the Neals left behind their troubled block on Montford Avenue for a single-family home in the leafy neighborhood of Mount Washington in North Baltimore.

Yesterday a federal judge ruled in favor of the ACLU and stated that the federal government has to provide all public housing residents with the same opportunities the Neals and others have received.

Day in the sun

"This decision will help other public housing residents to get out of the depressive state they've been living in," said Neal, 67, a retired city schools custodian. "Hopefully, in time, they'll have their day in the sun, too."

Neal said his family's day in the sun began in May, when the city provided them with a four-bedroom house to rent on Rockspring Road. The quiet street with sloping back yards and a mix of duplexes and single-family houses is like another world compared with the blighted rowhouses and high-rises where they had lived.

"We have oxygen here," Neal said. "We can really breathe."

Neal grew up in a Rutland Avenue rowhouse in East Baltimore that was once a thriving street north of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Today it stands in the heart of a severely blighted block slated for demolition.

He married his wife, Veronica, in 1981 and they lived in the Lafayette Courts high-rise complex. He served as a tenants association president and worked to keep residents positive about their surroundings.

In 2003, however, he nearly cried when he told The Sun of how he and his wife taught their three sons to lie on the floor when they heard gunshots in the eight years they lived there.

"We were in a war zone," he recalled yesterday.

When the high-rise complex was torn down a decade ago, Neal and his family moved into a Section 8 rental unit north of Patterson Park on Montford Avenue, an area filled with drug dealers and prostitutes.

"From where we came from in the projects to Montford Avenue was better," said Veronica Neal yesterday, sitting in a dining room filled with the sounds of trickling water from her cherished aquariums. "But from Montford Avenue to here was paradise."

Their sons - 15, 16 and 17 - have flourished in the new surroundings. The youngest, Emonie, had never played soccer before but is now on the team at Roland Park Middle School.

"It's much better out here," Emonie Neal said. "There's not a lot of violence."

'Beautiful' neighbors

Isaac Neal said he was initially worried that his family might be stigmatized in their new neighborhood, but that has not happened. He said his neighbors have been "beautiful."

"It's a very welcoming community," said Clifford Mitchell, president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association. "It's a very diverse community - ethnically, racially, socioeconomically."

Isaac Neal said that he and his wife marked their 23rd wedding anniversary June 21 and invited their neighbors - black and white - to attend an open house in celebration.

"They all visited us, ate food with us," said Neal, who now works with the Baltimore Education Network Inc. "There's a bad perception of public housing people as walking around with our hands held out.

"We want to be viewed as contributors," he said.

In the gloomy mist outside their house yesterday, Isaac and Veronica Neal beamed as they showed off the back yard that rises up behind their two-story house. The inner city, she complained, was "a lot of cement, no grass." He spoke of spring and his plans to plant a vegetable garden, flower patches, maybe a "pool for the boys."

"This," he said, "is a heavenly place."

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