Surgical Look at Flag House

May 11, 1993

When the public housing program was created by Congress in 1937, its aim was to provide temporary living arrangements for Americans down on their luck due to the lingering Depression. Over the past half-century, public housing has ceased to be a stop-gap measure. It is now a fixture of big-city living, a symbol of the nation's constant -- and worsening -- urban crisis.

In his 1991 book, "The Promised Land," Nicholas Lemann charted the great black migration to the North in the 1940s and how it changed America. Race ceased to be a Southern issue. A migration which initially promised to be an unprecedented vehicle for black economic advancement soon proved to be a mirage. Millions of blacks reached Northern cities just as the American economy began changing from one based on manual labor and smokestack industries to one leapfrogging from one automated measure to another.

This gradual change -- touching on everything from politics to the very nature of poverty -- altered America's big cities.

It also transformed the character of the nation's public housing. Developments that had previously screened their applicants -- first by race, then by insisting that a prospective tenant have a job -- became less selective. While that did end purposely segregated projects -- there were nine for whites and 14 for blacks in Baltimore in 1952 -- a gradual relaxation in screening also eroded the diversity and mix of social backgrounds in public housing developments and their discipline.

That trend accelerated after high-rise complexes became the vogue in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, public housing in Baltimore -- and throughout the nation -- has come to represent a well-meaning federal program that veered out of control and failed disastrously. The conditions are so bad that some cities have opted to dynamite their public housing towers rather than have them continue as uncontrollable warrens of misery taken over by drug dealers and criminals.

Do not miss the concluding part of staff writer Michael A. Fletcher's series today on life in Baltimore's Flag House Courts public housing project. Pieced together during daily visits to that high-rise near East Lombard Street's Corned Beef Row, the narrative describes the stark complexity of Flag's life and problems.

Baltimore has developed ambitious plans to revamp its public housing. The Flag House series shows that winning federal money for bricks and mortar is the easy part, compared to changing the pathology of poverty. Providing housing is not enough. Human renewal -- providing jobs and stressing personal responsibility -- is needed.

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