Disprepair breeds danger at Flag House Courts

May 10, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

The elevator shook to a stop and Andrea "Piper" Horton, 6 and her 4-year-old sister, Erica, found themselves staring at a wall. They were stuck between floors.

Not knowing what to do, Andrea helped lower her younger sister to the floor below. But as she tried to get out, she slipped and plunged more than eight stories down the shaft.

"I thought I was going to die," she recalls.

Andrea fell on a bed of trash, lucky to escape only with bruises and a back injury in that 1987 incident. But it illustrates the dangers residents face daily at Baltimore's Flag House Courts public housing project.

At Flag House Courts, it is not unusual for young children to be hurt in elevator accidents or burned on exposed steam pipes. Tenants are struck by cabinets dislodging from walls or doors falling off closets. Children are sickened by asthma attacks triggered by the heating system's sharp temperature changes. And they are cut by shards of glass and poked by hypodermic syringes left lying on the untended grounds.

"I had a case where a child put one [a syringe] in his mouth," says Dr. Carolyn Cowles, who works at the nearby Greater Baltimore Medical Center clinic, which draws many patients from Flag. "This is certainly no place to raise a family."

The hazards at Flag, which The Sun visited daily for a month, reflect the deterioration and neglect of the East Baltimore

housing project. The evidence is apparent everywhere: sewage backups into bathtubs, huge populations of mice and maggots, broken windows, mounds of uncollected trash, walls rotted with water damage.

The most basic chores -- raking lawns, sweeping stairwells -- are done sporadically. Simple plumbing and electrical repairs can take months. A paltry number of workers -- 13 -- are assigned to take care of Flag, which has 487 apartments spread among rows of town homes and three high-rise buildings. Tenants blame the neglect on the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, saying the landlord has abandoned them.

Housing officials acknowledge some failings but say that tenants share the blame. Vandalism is endemic at Flag -- drug dealers shoot out lights, squatters trash vacant apartments, children litter. Some residents throw soiled diapers out of windows. Others don't even attempt to clean their homes.

However the fault is apportioned, the result is a miserable environment. The violence that envelops Flag from the drug trade contributes to a palpable sense of fear among residents. The dilapidated buildings and dirty grounds lead to a comparable sense of despair among Flag's 2,000 tenants, many of them poor people whose lives already are virtually drained of hope.

"It's sad people have to live like this," says Olenia Ebanks, a longtime tenant. "Believe me, I don't like living like this. I want better things."

Residents now have so little enthusiasm for Flag that they have ** scant interest even for gestures of good will. Last summer, Flag manager Susan B. Pierce challenged residents to think of a project that would spark a sense of ownership and community. She offered prize money totaling $1,000 for the best ideas.

"There were suggestions that we offer a pizza party or something," Ms. Pierce says. "But I said 'no.' I thought cash would be a real motivator."

Only one person signed up to participate. "The money still is in the bank," Ms. Pierce says.

Children are injured

A year after Andrea tumbled down the elevator shaft, her father, Bobby Horton, broke his wrist in a fall after a stairway banister in his apartment tore free from the wall. And when Erica, now 9, was a toddler, she badly burned her hip on an exposed steam pipe in her bedroom. The scar remains today.

"The pipes had been uncovered for a long time," says Diane Horton, her mother. "But after that, they came and covered them that day."

Injuries from hot pipes are a common complaint at Flag. Olenia Ebanks was mopping the floor of her kitchen when her year-old son, Davon, was hurt while playing in his bedroom with a cousin in January 1992.

"I heard him holler and scream, but I figured they were playing," she says. "But my older son brought him downstairs. I saw the eye, and I was like, 'What the hell?' "

The burn from a radiator pipe left Davon's left eye swollen shut and the surrounding skin discolored. His mother took him to the nearby GBMC clinic, which sent him on to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Fortunately, Davon's eyesight was not damaged, although he suffered first- and second-degree burns.

Ms. Ebanks says maintenance workers covered the heating pipes in her apartment a day after the accident. But she said she had to remove the foam and cardboard covers because mice were moving into them from a downstairs apartment.

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