High-rise dream of the '50s becomes a nightmare of the '90s : Lafayette Courts judged costly failure

February 09, 1992|By Joan Jacobson Robert Hilson Jr. of the metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

When the tall towers of Lafayette Courts opened 37 years ago, they offered poor families safe, clean housing and hope. Rising above the tenements the families left behind, the public housing project had lawns and flowers and a penthouse view of the harbor.

Today, Kim Woodley will tell you what it's like to live at Lafayette Courts.

She'll tell you about the sink that backs up sewage in her kitchen, the mice that race across her cement floor three at a time, the syringes that drug addicts dump in the playground and the dirty diapers that her neighbors drop from the floors above.

Built just east of downtown, Lafayette Courts is Baltimore's largest and oldest high-rise public housing project. By all accounts it has been a failure -- so much so that Baltimore's Housing Authority announced three weeks ago that it wants to tear the project down.

Like other high-rise ghettos in America's large cities, Lafayette Courts proved disastrous for poor families. It was doomed because of poor design, poor management and the intractable problems of poverty.

The failure of Lafayette Courts is a costly one. While the Housing Authority spent $7.6 million to build it in 1955, it would cost $6 million just to knock down five of the six towers and $52 million to replace them. The authority police force costs $5.7 million a year. The heavily vandalized elevators alone

cost $15,000 a month to repair.

It is still uncertain whether the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will fund the ambitious plans by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City to replace five of the six 11-story towers and modernize the 17 nearby low-rise buildings.

But the tenants of Lafayette Courts are ready to pack.

"I'm all for it. They can do it today," said Nacole Taylor, who has spent 32 years in Lafayette Courts -- her entire life.

Her childhood memories of a safe home when "there were flowers and no drug dealers" are long gone.

"This is just a jail house," she said.

When the city broke ground in 1953, The Evening Sun reported that Lafayette Courts would "replace one of the worst slums that existed in the city."

The ceremony drew politicians and a local minister who blessed the site. When the "skyscrapers" were completed two years later, The Sun extolled the harbor views offered to "$50 a week laborers."

While the high-rise buildings were touted as a panacea for the poor, the reason for their novel design was purely financial.

The Housing Authority had limited funds to buy land, said John McCauley, who ran the authority for 18 years until he retired a year ago. So Baltimore had to "build up" on 21.5 acres, just like other cities did.

The high-rises were viewed with such excitement that the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health spent $500,000 to compare the health and mental well-being of tenants at Lafayette with those who remained in the tenements below.

Their conclusion seven years after the first tenants moved in: Residents at Lafayette Courts reported fewer accidents and illnesses and found their new community more neighborly and a safer place for their children to play.

And that's how Frances Reives remembers it. She moved to Lafayette Courts when it opened and she's still there. For 22 years she worked as the resident aide for the authority, showing young tenants how to keep house and budget their money.

"In the '50s and '60s, it was a beautiful place to live," she recalled. "You had a place for your children to play. You could leave your kids safely outside. You weren't worried about someone breaking into your home. There was a lot of love from neighbors."

'People are different'

By the 1970s, though, Baltimore was becoming a poorer and more violent city. Shootings and drug dealing spilled over into the projects.

In an effort to turn around decaying cities, the administration of President Jimmy Carter began pouring money into Baltimore and other urban centers. Poor tenants at Lafayette Courts took advantage of job-training programs that enabled them to work their way out of public housing, just as many of the first occupants had.

But a decade later, the federal government under President Ronald Reagan ended most job-training programs. And more tenants, unable to find jobs, ended up on the welfare rolls.

Private housing became more expensive, subsidized housing programs were cut back, and people began doubling up with public housing tenants.

Possibly as many as one-third of people in public housing are there illegally today, according to housing officials.

Thelma Millard, who heads family support services for public housing, recalled that 20 years ago, young unemployed mothers had help from relatives who worked.

Now, she said, their relatives are out of work, too.

"If we are successful in getting a mother to go to job training, there's no job when she gets out," she added.

Consequently, there is a more permanent population of people on welfare, and many who grew up there are now raising their own children in Lafayette Courts.

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