Families in city's high-rises cope with violence, drugs CHILDREN AT RISK

November 27, 1990|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

Behind the elevator on the eighth floor, the children have hung a bottomless milk crate. The crate hangs cockeyed from a chain-link fence, but a youngster can leap and twist in the air and jam a ball through with power and grace.

Then he might dart down the hall and run into a drug deal in the stairwell. Or he might hear the distant pop of a gun. Or, once or twice a year, as he's growing and forming his ideas of the world, he can watch with wide eyes as the police haul people who've been murdered out of the apartment complex he calls home.

Such is life for children in Baltimore's 18 public-housing, family high-rises -- home to about 7,000 people, of which nearly 3,000 are 17 or younger. Just last Friday two 17-year-olds were shot to death in a 14th-floor apartment at Lexington Terrace in West Baltimore.

A special task force has concluded that children should not be raised in the high-rises. The task force has recommended to the city that families with children -- meaning, in nearly every case, mothers with children -- should be moved out of the high-rises into safer, more suitable apartments.

At a news conference yesterday, Robert W. Hearn, executive director of the Baltimore Housing Authority, and Michael J. Kelly, chairman of the Family High-Rise Modernization Task Force, announced the conclusions of the task force's nine-month study. Six of the 14 members of the task force live in public housing.

The group concluded that the high-rises Lexington Terrace, George B. Murphy Homes, Flag House Courts and Lafayette Courts should be turned into apartment buildings for adults and senior citizens.

Hearn and Kelly stressed that implementing the task force's recommendation would be costly and time-consuming. They said city officials and the housing authority now face at least two difficult tasks: Finding acceptable housing for residents of high-rises (perhaps low-rise apartments near the high-rises, perhaps public or private apartments scattered throughout the city), and coming up with millions and millions of dollars for buying or rehabilitating apartments and for refurbishing the high-rises.

The most likely source of money is the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which can be contrary as well stingy.

"We can't expect HUD to be cheering us on every step of the way," Hearn said.

He and Kelly declined to set a strict timetable for moving families out of the high-rises, but Kelly said it might take 10 years and $100 million -- "in very rough terms."

Officials in cities around the country have begun realizing that high-rises for families don't work, Hearn said. The dilemma now is finding realistic alternatives.

"We're not dreamers," Hearn said of the housing authority and its high-rise task force. "But we're saying that somebody's got to start somewhere."

And what better place to start than the eighth floor of one of the high-rises at Lexington Terrace, where the children have hung the milk crate. What a sad excuse for a basketball court: a patch of bare concrete behind the elevator, a low roof, a plastic milk crate and the chain-link fence.

The chain-link fence is what outsiders notice first. It and the monotonous tiers remind outsiders of a jail. This is not a fair characterization, but a popular one.

"I get very hostile when people call it a jail," said Bobbie McKinney, who lives on the 10th floor at Lexington Terrace, just west of Martin Luther King Boulevard between Mulberry and Fayette streets. "I get very insulted when people want to run down the high-rises. I consider them condominiums, and my apartment a penthouse."

McKinney, 38, has lived here since she was 5. She grew up here and reared two children here. Her three sisters live here, and among them they have eight children.

McKinney is one of the six public housing residents on the Family High-Rise Modernization Task Force, but the only one who lives in a high-rise.

"When we were coming up things were great," she said. "But now there's a new generation of kids. The drug problem and the violence problem have increased. With those two problems in a high-rise, along with the vandalism, nobody thinks it's a place to bring up kids."

But still, she said, residents -- most residents, anyway -- have a sense of community here. The people she meets wandering through the complex are friendly, and the children are polite and soft-spoken.

Children ride bicycles and play on the concrete landings outside their apartments. Although they're behind the chain-link fence, they're safe.

"I know where my child is," McKinney said, referring to her 12-year-old son, Gregory. "He's safe. He's away from the cars. He's out of the line of fire."

Her 21-year-old son, Phillip Snead, also lives with her, but he is saving his money to move out of the city. He said drugs and the resulting violence have ruined life in the high-rises.

"It's hard to get a decent girl to come down here," he said. "They're scared down here. I don't even want to be down here any more."

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