City high-rises: Poverty's pueblos

Dan Rodricks

November 26, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

Another shooting at Lexington Terrace, this one a double homicide, brought the crowd out to the courtyard. Men, women and children home from school for the day watched as the bodies of two teen-agers, shot to death in an apartment on the 14th floor of the old housing project, were removed on stretchers.

This was Friday afternoon, several hours after the shooting. Police had been summoned around 1:30, but it is believed the teen-agers were killed several hours earlier. One of the residents thought he'd heard shots early in the morning, but hadn't paid much attention. He said he hears shots around Lexington Terrace all the time.

A boyfriend and girlfriend were killed, which adds jealousy to the list of possible motives. However, drug dealing is usually the first thing that occurs to detectives, especially when the scene of the crime is one of the city's old high-rises.

A couple of years ago, at Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes, a gang of young drug dealers ruled. They conducted business -- with its attendant homicides -- in plain view of the residents, many of whom were children. There was a time when a few kids at Murphy Homes were being paid a dollar a day to hold weapons for some of the gang leaders. Though that particular gang has been sent off to prison, the high-rises remain a marketplace for drugs. Of course, so do most of Baltimore's poor neighborhoods. The high-rises, however, are notoriously difficult to police.

But drugs and violence are not the only problems with Baltimore's 18 dilapidated high-rises. The problems are numerous and awesome, which is why a special task force has concluded that children should be moved out of them. It's why others think the high-rises should be torn down, something that has already been done in other cities. Tearing them down or blowing them up -- either way, it's a wonderful concept. Except for a couple of things:

1. There is no place to put the 2,000 current high-rise residents.

2. Thanks to the Reagan-Bush administrations, there is little or no money from Washington for new public housing. (Baltimore will get $100 million in housing funds over the next decade, a pittance considering what the city needs to house the thousands who are in, or waiting for, public housing. Meanwhile, the only new high rise the federal government supports in Baltimore is a $37 million office tower offering 250,000 square feet of space for more bureaucracy.)

The high-rises were never any good for families. Nothing about them was pleasant. They appeared to have been designed by the same guy who did the German pillboxes over Omaha beach.

The high-rises were part of a grand urban renewal plan hatched by Big Thinkers in Washington. The federal government spent millions of dollars to rejuvenate the inner cities and house the poor who did not manage to escape to suburbia in the decade following World War II. Old rowhouse neighborhoods were dying -- though the people from East Street in Baltimore would argue differently -- so the government sent in the bulldozers, followed by the construction cranes. Millions upon millions of cubic yards of concrete were poured. Millions of tons of brick were laid.

Ever visited one of these palaces? Two, sometimes three rooms of painted cinder block walls. With a concrete slab balcony. From the balcony, downtown Baltimore looks like some distant hub, leading the high-rise resident to feelings of isolation. This feeling was compounded some years ago by the construction of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the west and the President Street off-ramp from the Jones Falls Expressway on the east. King Boulevard left Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace even more isolated from the mainstream of the city, while President Street, now a busy boulevard, had a similar effect on Flag House Courts and Lafayette Courts. They became more insular, detached -- pueblos of poor people.

The residents are stacked on top of each other. The buildings are noisy 24 hours a day. Children play in nearby streets or on concrete playgrounds or on concrete courtyards. They negotiate around older men who loiter or conduct business in the hallways or the raunchy elevators. When they are in for the night, the children crowd the apartments. At Flag, a teen-age boy might seek breathing room by walking onto the balcony, curling his fingers around the chain-link curtain and maybe catching the lights of the city. At this point in his life, he sees little difference between life in the high-rise and life on a prison tier.

That boy has been standing there for years.

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