On a hidden street near downtown, the future of public housing plays out

It is an overcast afternoon on Clay Street as Hakeem Miller, 16, and Mar'Quise Travis, 15, throw a football with friends. The game takes place a few blocks from the State House, on a stretch of asphalt seemingly apart from much of Annapolis called Clay Street.

Miller and Travis stand in the hollowed-out remnant of the city's Fourth Ward — the former cultural and economic home of the city's African-American community.

The ward was once on the other side of train tracks that ran through Annapolis, but the neighborhood had everything: barber shops, beauty salons, clothing shops; restaurants, a tailor, a drugstore, a grocery store.

Now, urban renewal has replaced businesses and restaurants with offices and parking garages. The neighborhood is full of small houses and little open space, sectioned off behind a parking garage and Loews Annapolis Hotel.

Obery Court and College Creek Terrace — two complexes formerly managed by the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis — straddle Clay Street. The neighborhoods, once the epitome of aging public housing, are now examples of redeveloped privately managed, low-income housing in Annapolis.

The city's poorest residents are clustered in neighborhoods that feel removed from the rest of Annapolis, even this close to downtown. Few shops or businesses cater to the residents of low-income housing; nearby are mostly pricey bars and restaurants for downtown clientele. Private homes dot the Clay Street neighborhood, but low-income housing remains clustered.

A familiar scene

Public housing in the Clay Street area goes back, in some cases, 70 years. The buildings are in much better shape since their redevelopment started in 2009 and are no longer strictly public housing — there are project-based vouchers, tax-credit and traditional public units.

Yet the scene is familiar: Annapolis' low-income housing isolated from the rest of the city, leaving residents of those neighborhoods, like Kenny Whiteside, 59, wanting more.

Whiteside has lived in a home just past the intersection of Clay and West Washington streets for 15 years. He grew up in the old Obery Court, playing by the train tracks as a kid, and worked 30 years at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Annapolis, he said, "is a nice little big city. Trying to be, anyway."

"I'd like to see some businesses," Whiteside said. "I'd like to see opportunities for the kids to grow, somewhere so they could have something to do instead of being in the street."

Most of what's left around Clay Street are homes. Timothy Gardens, a low-income complex tucked behind the end Washington Street, looks worn. Kids file into the Stanton Community Center gymnasium after school for help with their homework and a chance to play.

The Elks Lodge, a social club from the days of the old Fourth Ward, sits near the Stanton Center. A bodega and laundromat are some of the few businesses left on Clay Street.

A boutique remains

Gloria Brown owns L&G Boutique, another business still in the neighborhood. Brown opened the boutique in 2006, selling women's clothing, Sunday hats and choir robes. Business is slower these days, but Brown doesn't want to leave as long as tenants are renting a room above her store.

The building next to L&G Boutique is empty and has been for a while. Outside there is a "For Sale" sign. One of the apartments above that building was recently boarded up; a mattress from the tenant sits on the sidewalk outside Brown's store.

"The area could be better if (the city) gave it some attention," Brown said.

Most of the attention paid to Clay Street revolves around the lack of space for kids. After a basketball court was demolished during redevelopment, little open space was left in the neighborhood.

The lack of space was a trade-off, the project's developer says, for not reducing the number of homes in the neighborhood.

Today the only open space on Clay Street is a playground sealed off behind a chain-link fence in a field that will soon give way to 61 housing units — the third phase of redevelopment.

"They're building all this stuff, mind you," said Nadine, a woman from the neighborhood, who asked that her last name not be used, "but where are they going to play at?"

Ivy Carter, vice president of Pennrose Properties, admits the neighborhood is "not the best model" in terms of space. But it was the only way for the company to preserve so many low-income units, she said.

"If we had not put all of those affordable housing units on that site, where would they have gone?" Carter said.

Wanting to move

College Creek Terrace and Obery Court are improved from six years ago, but remain isolated from the rest of the city.

Gale Medley has been a homeowner on West Washington Street for 13 years because of Habitat for Humanity, which developed houses near Clay Street. Habitat's housing is one of the few innovations to come to public housing in Annapolis.

Medley, 53, grew up in Bowman Court, a former housing authority property. She has two grown children living in the Clay Street neighborhood and two grandsons whom she hopes can one day move out of Annapolis.

The neighborhood is hard on young boys, Medley said, and the city is expensive.

"I've lived in Annapolis all my life," she said. "I know Annapolis and I'm comfortable with Annapolis. I can afford to live in Annapolis, but eventually I want to move from out of Annapolis."

Miller and Travis' afternoon football game takes place perhaps 15 yards from Medley's home. The teenagers throw the ball up and down Clay Street, pausing only to let cars squeeze through.

As they get ready to start the game, Miller is asked why they are playing on the cracked asphalt of Clay Street. He looks around.

"It's the only place we've got to play."

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