They come in an unrelenting procession. They march to th front of a building, have a few hushed words with a young man, push through the turnstiles, past the security booths, past the laughing children playing in the hallways and into the dank, forbidding stairways where they buy cocaine and heroin.
The march continues day in and day out at Baltimore's Flag House Courts public housing project, virtually around the clock. And with the drugs come the guns. Together, they have transformed Flag House into a place so wretched, where violence and death are so familiar, that it resembles a war zone.
There are combatants at Flag -- people like 18-year-old Bobby Montgomery, who shot one man in the mouth two years ago and now is accused of shooting another man in the back.
There are civilians -- like Sterling Willis and his wife, Evelyn, who have retreated into their apartment and forbidden their children to play outside, hoping to better their chances of survival.
There are collaborators -- like Tony Partlow, a tenant and drug addict who deplores the violence but nevertheless has helped the dealers by working as a lookout or lending them his apartment.
And there are many, many casualties -- most of them young men who fall in neighborhood combat. But there are others, like 63-year-old George W. Thomas, who was nearly killed at his front door in September by a stray gunshot. Or 6-year-old Chastity Oliver, who still trembles at night because a bullet pierced the wall of her grandmother's apartment. Or city police Officer James E. Young Jr., who was critically wounded in September while trying to make a drug arrest.
Drugs and the culture they foster are the defining fact of life at Flag, an East Baltimore complex of deteriorating brick buildings and 2,000 residents, two-thirds of them children, near Little Italy. For a month, a Sun reporter visited Flag daily and observed how deeply drugs have saturated the neighborhood. Almost every tenant has found a way to live with that reality -- some by surrendering to it, some by hiding from it, and many more by keeping silent, never acknowledging what they see or know.
"If you go door-to-door, you'll meet a lot of good people here," Mrs. Willis says. "But everybody keeps to themselves because they are afraid. This is a community absent of community involvement."
Indeed, the rules of ordinary neighborhoods hardly apply here. With its three high-rises and 133 low-rise apartments packed into 11 acres, Flag is more like a small city, striking in its lawlessness. Squatters have seized vacant apartments, and the number of official tenants -- 1,200 -- is swelled by people illegally doubling up.
While junkies and crack addicts and dealers come from all over Baltimore, the core of the drug problem is among the residents. There is widespread tolerance of the trade, as even the most ardent opponents of drugs are reluctant to report a son or daughter or neighbor to authorities.
For their part, the thin ranks of security personnel and housing police officers mostly look the other way, either too overwhelmed or frightened to impose order.
In its misery, Flag is not much different from some of the city's other high-rise public housing projects, where the promise of a decent place to live has become a bitter disappointment. A threatened rent strike over chronic maintenance problems at the Lexington Terrace complex last fall prompted city officials to visit. While touring Lexington, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke heard tale after tale about crime. Soon after, he moved forward on a plan to empty one of the high-rise buildings.
By the time anyone pays attention to Flag, however, it may be too late.
"It's bad," says Mr. Thomas, who lived at Flag 25 years before leaving in March. "It's like when a fire gets too far gone. You can't put it out."
'It was nice'
Mr. Thomas can remember a time when life at Flag was far different. He and his wife, Juanita, arrived in 1968 and reared seven children in a four-bedroom apartment.
"It was lovely here when we moved in," recalls Mr. Thomas, a former truck driver. "We would sit out front on the lawn in the evenings. It was nice."
When Flag opened in 1955, it was hailed as a fine alternative to the dilapidated row homes it replaced. The $4.5 million complex included three 12-story towers, open-air hallways, neatly aligned town homes and playgrounds and common areas. Many apartments even had views of the harbor.
"Years ago, they kept this place up," Mr. Thomas says. "If you made too much noise they called you in and you all had to sit down and talk it over."
As a result, Flag attracted many tenants like Mr. Thomas: poor, hard-working people hoping to move up into the middle class, planning to use public housing as a temporary refuge. Almost half the tenants back then had jobs.
Mr. Thomas says a single city police officer and his dog patrolled Flag and were able to keep things in check. "He never had any problems," Mr. Thomas says. "Everyone respected him."