In Public Housing, It Is Time for Baltimore to Get Back to Where It Used to Be

January 31, 1993|By C. FRASER SMITH

When I moved to Baltimore in 1977, I was impressed with the look of the city's public housing projects and with the relative calm that seemed to obtain in most of them.

Much has changed since then -- as city officials are learning first hand. Some are even trying to learn what life in public housing is like in 1993 by moving in for a night.

One might want to condemn such exertions as political theater or grandstanding. But nothing is wrong with fact-finding. Policy-makers should know what they've created, and the voters should see, as they have been seeing recently on television and in newspapers, how their social investments are being managed.

I should declare my own bias: I lived for a year in a housing project in Providence, R.I. My family and I moved into a high-rise project building with a group of students from a local college.

The students wanted to do field work for their sociology courses. I was then covering the anti-poverty program for the Providence Journal, and I thought I might learn something about the problems the government was trying to solve, problems I was writing about but usually saw only through the prism of a community organizer or a set of statistics or a program.

I think we did emerge understanding more. But I doubt much was learned that changed public policy about public housing.

The same may not be true today of Baltimore City Council President Mary Pat Clarke's recent overnight stay at the Lexington Terrace project. She will remember being stuck in the elevator, of course. She will have a good feel for what it means to be frightened and marooned -- and to feel helpless, not just about balky machinery but about a system that permits the sort of living conditions once associated with the worst slumlords.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke visited Friday night. Well before that, the mayoral inspection had produced results: a massive, preparatory cleanup, with crews making away with tons of detritus which had suddenly become an embarrassment.

Places like Lexington Terrace can become symbols for the discarded and hopeless among us, places where violent behavior is endemic: public housing in other words. So, it may be that the high-profile visitors succeed only in nailing the stereotype more firmly into our consciousness. The prospect of action as a result of these trips is worth the risk.

If this were not Baltimore, the what-a-shock responses of some to problems in the projects would be entirely laughable. But, in a sense, the surprise is understandable. It might be shared by those who know of Baltimore's earlier reputation for running one of the best public housing systems in the nation -- the one I remember looking at from afar when I arrived here 15 years ago.

For years, the city had few public housing vacancies, thus avoiding what experts have said is a common cancer, taking apartments out of service, providing havens for nefarious behavior.

Somehow -- and we need to know how -- Baltimore projects avoided this blighting influence for the most part. For years, more than 40,000 city residents had their names on waiting lists for public housing. People actually wanted to move in. They still do, perhaps.

And while the high-rise buildings had their problems, they were not on the order of problems elsewhere. Certainly they fell short of the chaos that consumed Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, a building that was actually dynamited eventually, so deeply rooted and so beyond redemption had it fallen.

The conditions at 2 Whelan Road in the Hartford Park projects of Providence were not nearly so daunting by the time we got there. Previously, life there had been occasionally brutish, and the doors were closed. Other parts of the project were fully occupied, and we moved in hoping to learn something valuable.

Enduring images of that year include:

* A world upside down: Bedrooms in the apartments at 2 Whelan Road were a floor below the kitchen and the living room. Four- and five-bedroom apartments built for families were turned over to the elderly, whose families usually numbered two at most.

* The project sequins: broken glass covering the macadam playgrounds always.

* Unforgiving concrete floors and cinder block walls that made the fall of an infant even more frightening.

* Doors that slammed shut when left open, owing to a ferocious draft somehow generated in the physical configuration of those apartments. Several people I met in the projects had tips of fingers sheered off by these doors.

* Smart, funny kids who lived in the low-rise project buildings across the street from 2 Whelan Road and the special language they invented. If outsiders thought they were better, let them try to understand our language. They would lapse into projickspeak with a certain glee -- but willingly taught some of it to the visiting scholars.

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