New hopes for public housing suffer as old woes resurface

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Yvonne Slater's life is ordinary now, and she's thankful. There's no barbed wire in her neighborhood anymore. No backed-up plumbing. No dark stairwells littered with discarded crack bags.

Ten years ago today, Slater stood amid a throng of cheering spectators, teary-eyed yet relieved to see the decrepit Lafayette Courts public housing high-rise crash to the ground.

Today, she lives comfortably in a three-bedroom townhouse on the same spot, behind Baltimore's main post office in a tidy new community.

But Pleasant View Gardens is beginning to show wear, and crime is creeping back in.

The closest elementary school, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, has closed. As a result, children are being bused to three other schools, all failing.

The city Housing Authority disbanded its police force and combined it with the city police last fall, and residents complain that foot patrols are sparse, the police substation empty and the surveillance cameras turned off.

Slater worries that Pleasant View Gardens won't have the fairy-tale ending she was promised.

"We thought this was going to work," says Slater, a 38-year-old mother of five. It's "way better" than when she lived on the 10th floor of the graffiti-scarred Lafayette Courts. But now, she says, "things are getting worse again. I just don't know."

Once a symbol of urban decay, Lafayette Courts was the first of four desolate, dangerous public housing high-rise developments that the city flattened to clear the way for smaller, mixed-income communities.

It was reborn as the 337-unit Pleasant View Gardens, an attractive refuge of traditional brick rowhouses with neatly groomed lawns in a dilapidated section of East Baltimore, heralded by local and national leaders as a model for how to better house the poor.

Now, the biggest problems residents face are emerging blight and rising crime.

The grassy circle named New Hope Circle and designed as a community gathering spot has a new nickname among neighbors: "The Cut," street slang for prison.

In January, two men were shot after a fight erupted at a party in the community center's multipurpose room. Terry Steven Street, 23, a resident of the nearby Douglass Homes public housing development, was shot in the face and died that night.

Many people are still happy to call Pleasant View Gardens home. Along with the run-down homes and homeless shelter across the street are a new child care center, the Boys & Girls Club and a health complex.

Some eager to leave

It is certainly cleaner and safer than Lafayette Courts, yet it is still public housing, the refuge of welfare mothers and the very poor, and some can't wait to leave.

Melody Offer, 34, is planning her wedding - and her exit. Offer, who reviews worker's compensation claims for the state, has three children and waited for 12 years to get into public housing.

Rent is determined by income level, and Offer is spending $768 a month for her three-bedroom home while others pay almost nothing, and she complains that she can't get repairs done.

"Honestly," she says, "I hate it."

When the city imploded the worn, 40-year-old towers of Lafayette Courts, where rival drug gangs fought turf wars, few tenants were sorry to see them go.

More than 800 families, the majority of them consisting of single women with young children living on incomes of less than $6,000 a year, were crowded into the isolated high-rises.

The heating was faulty, the elevators constantly broken and the halls grimy. Gunfire was so common that children learned to hit the floor immediately.

It was the same story in other big cities, as high-rise apartment buildings constructed in the 1950s turned into crowded, crime-ridden tenements. Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis and Newark, N.J., joined Baltimore in the mid-1990s in demolishing their public housing high-rises to clear the way for smaller, mixed-income communities.

Baltimore put together nearly $300 million in federal, state and local funds to demolish all four of the big high-rise projects that ringed downtown - Lafayette Courts and Flag House near Little Italy, and Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes along Martin Luther King Boulevard - then build new communities.

Much of the money came from HOPE VI, an urban renewal program that generated high-rise redevelopment nationwide. The U.S. Senate recently extended the program for another year.

The reconstruction at the Lafayette Courts site, which cost more than $72 million, was hailed as cause for celebration. The city held a party and a parade the morning of Aug. 19, 1995, before reducing the six towers to rubble. Bands played, and bricks from the high-rises were sold for $1 apiece.

The demolition was not without controversy. Hundreds of families had to be displaced, and many wanted to stay near Lafayette Courts. Nearby neighborhoods including Patterson Park complained that they had been suddenly overwhelmed with displaced poor families.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union had brought a lawsuit accusing the city and federal governments of systematically segregating poor blacks. Lawyers argued against rebuilding public housing on the sites of the demolished buildings, pushing instead for relocating families using vouchers.

As the city demolished its three other high-rise developments, fewer public housing units were available. Baltimore now has about 12,000 publicly subsidized apartments for families, down from 15,834 in 1995.

"Are we better off as a city?" asks Robert C. Embry Jr., a former city housing commissioner who is now president of the Abell Foundation. "The trade-off is, there are fewer people housed, but they are housed better. So there's no right answer to that question."

Critics here and elsewhere have asked whether demolishing high-rises is just another urban planning fad.

Susan J. Popkin, a research associate with the Urban Institute, said many cities used the Hope VI money to remove blighted areas and allowed neighborhoods to flourish.

In Atlanta, the Villages at East Lake complex has revitalized a nearby golf course. Washington, Boston and Chicago have thrived with hot rental markets.

But in Baltimore, Popkin said, struggling neighborhoods around the destroyed high-rises could not be turned around.

"Baltimore is a city that still has many problems, the neighborhood has problems, and it's tough to turn around one development," she said, adding that a key question is "whether the city can pull off a turnaround."

Kurt L. Schmoke, who was mayor when Lafayette Courts was razed and is now dean of Howard University Law School, thinks Pleasant View Gardens has given some of Baltimore's poorest families a fresh start.

He is "still very proud of it," he says, but he cautions that it cannot be judged appropriately if planned support services are no longer available.

"If you pull one little brick out of the building," he says, "it's going to crumble."

Overall, Schmoke says, the tenants are better off and downtown Baltimore has benefited because it is no longer ringed by the blighted high-rises.

"I think all of us understood in dealing with the problems of poverty, there's no magic wand," Schmoke says. "I'm absolutely convinced, though, that a better physical setting gives us a better chance to fight poverty."

City leaders agree, though some argue that the redevelopment should have been broadened to include more stores, a library, a school and other community features. City Council President Sheila Dixon gives Pleasant View Gardens an "A" but says she would flunk the surrounding area.

"You put down a great development, and a couple of blocks later you're looking at blight," she says.

Daniel P. Henson III, who was the city housing commissioner at the time of the demolition, has taken urban planning students on tours of Pleasant View Gardens. A few months ago, he attended a wedding in the community center.

He, too, is proud. His only regret, he says, is not having included more homeownership. Twenty-seven of the units - mostly in the 200 block of Asquith St. - are occupied by owners.

When Lafayette Courts came down, Henson said, the city was caught between those who wanted all public housing units rebuilt on-site and the ACLU and other advocates who urged that housing not be concentrated again on the same site.

"The critical issue is to economically integrate a community," he says.

A decade later, there is economic and social division, not only between the new development and the blighted surrounding areas, but also within the community itself.

Flaws surface

In two homes on New Hope Circle, flaws are starting to surface in the seven-year-old buildings. Heath Robinson, 38, points in disgust to his dining room ceiling, which is cracked and poorly patched. Pieces of drywall have fallen on his floor. "It's a mess," he says. "They need to do something around here."

Slater's home has holes in the ceiling and walls. The back screen door lies torn on the ground, and her air conditioning broke last month, forcing her to use a window unit. Groups of youngsters gather around steps and hang out around the circle until early morning.

Just around the corner are the quiet sidewalks of Comet Street, where June Washington, 43, lives with her son in an immaculately clean white home; and Aisquith Street, where an older man helps take groceries into 62-year-old Alice Vaughn's home as her 3-year-old grandson Darian plays in the kitchen.

The residents share the hope that the city will not write off their neighborhood as a success and ignore problems that could turn Pleasant View Gardens into a low-rise Lafayette Courts.

"It's not enough to make new town homes, make them look nice, but bring in the same riffraff and allow the same problems," Washington said. "What's the point?"

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