Murphy Homes belied hopes of its builders Neighborhood woes proved too strong

April 07, 1991|By Ginger Thompson

At a groundbreaking ceremony in November 1961, Mayor J Harold Grady stood on the corner of Myrtle and George streets in West Baltimore, looked out over a neighborhood of ramshackle row houses and announced the construction of a public housing complex that would halt the spreading decay.

George B. Murphy Homes -- with its modern 14-story towers -- would provide affordable, sanitary and safe housing to hundreds of poor families and stimulate private improvements throughout the area, he said.

That was the theory that launched the public housing movement across the country in the late 1930s, when inner cities began to decay after the Depression and rapid industrialization.

Thus Congress passed the United States Housing Act, which allowed local housing authorities to borrow federal money for slum removal and for the creation of homes at a cost that low-income tenants could afford.

Baltimore embarked on its public housing program in 1940 with the completion of Edgar Allan Poe Homes in West Baltimore. The first projects were designated as "Negro housing" or "white housing," according to the neighborhood.

The average rent for public housing ranged from $15 to $25 a month -- no more, and sometimes less, than what tenants had paid for substandard housing on the private market.

Twenty years later, Murphy Homes was completed on a 14-acre stretch of land less than a mile from Poe Homes. The complex, designated "Negro housing," was the last of Baltimore's 17 large public housing projects to be built.

Named for the first black member of the city's housing commission, the complex cost $10.5 million, with playgrounds and several apartments designed to accommodate the elderly.

But the complex did not spur the improvements housing officials had foreseen. Instead, Murphy Homes -- bordered by what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard, Franklin Street, Fremont Avenue and Argyle Avenue -- sank to the level of the slums around it. The complex soon came to exemplify the community's social ills.

Infusions of money did not prevent its decline. In 1975, Congress gave Baltimore $2.75 million for improvements to Murphy Homes, which had become known as one of the most beleaguered complexes in the city.

City officials used the funds to enclose Murphy Homes' lobby areas and to employ a 24-hour guard service. But with little money for social and recreational programs, the face-lift alone could not heal the deep-rooted problems that thrived inside the towers.

Since then, housing officials across the country have abandoned the concept of high-rise housing for families with small children -- saying they are too expensive to maintain.

In Baltimore, the housing authority hopes to win federal funds to remove families from its high-rises and convert them into apartments for low-income adults.

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