Cleanup blitz at Flag House Courts 352 city workers make badly needed repairs at troubled Baltimore high-rise

June 02, 1993|By Melody Simmons and Michael A. Fletcher | Melody Simmons and Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writers

In a dramatic effort to sweep away peoblems plaguing East Baltimore's Flag House Courts, an army of police and maintenance workers descended on a high-rise at the housing project yesterday to evict squatters and drug dealers and to give the building a fresh coat of paint, clean stairwells and even plant a flower garden.

Operation ECHO, which stands for Extraordinary Comprehensive Housekeeping Operation, started at 9 a.m. when 42 city police officers joined 30 Housing Authority police officers at 107 S. Albemarle St. to inspect the building's 118 units for illegal tenants. One hour later, a massive cleanup started as 352 maintenance workers descended on the building.

One arrest was made after police identified a man in a hallway who had an outstanding arrest warrant, Housing Authority police reported.

There are three high-rise apartment buildings in the Flag House Courts. The building at 107 S. Albemarle was chosen for the sweep because of its decrepit condition and because of its long association with violent crime and drug dealing, said Maj. Cornelius J. Hairston III of the Housing Authority police.

Of the 17 high-rises run by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, the building at 107 S. Albemarle is "No. 1 for maintenance [problems], drugs and crime," Major Hairston said.

The sweep was modeled after similar public housing overhauls in Chicago and Washington in which federal and city officials flooded the crime and drug-plagued developments with resources and maintenance.

The sweeps were started five years ago by the Chicago Housing Authority and are now being endorsed for other cities by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Yesterday's blitz cost taxpayers $208,000 and lasted 12 hours. It began when a caravan of 30 Housing Authority trucks rumbled up to the 12-story high-rise. By 11:15 a.m., a bed of pink impatiens and orange marigolds adorned the front of the building, and sod was installed over a yard that had been littered with drug syringes, trash and broken glass. Nearly 500 corned beef sandwiches from a delicatessen on nearby Corned Beef Row soon arrived for lunch.

"When they leave here today, you won't recognize the place," said Baltimore City Police Maj. John R. Wagner. "This is an effort by the city to give back to the residents a decent place to live. We're down here to help people live better."

By noon, welders had cut apart and removed the steel turnstile at the front entrance to the building. Turnstiles were installed in the high-rises in an unsuccessful effort to keep out squatters and drug dealers.

Yesterday, the building's residents were issued photo identification cards to be used with a newly installed computerized entrance system, and visitors were given daily passes.

Officials installed metal detectors at the front entrance and outlined plans for a $75,000 security fence to be erected later this month.

Muslim security

At 4 p.m., a team of three unarmed security guards from the Nation of Islam Security Inc. started to patrol the building, wearing suits and bow ties.

The Muslim security force was hired under an emergency contract last week to provide 24-hour service at No. 107, but the city housing chief, Daniel P. Henson III, said the cost of the contract was still being negotiated.

Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, D-4th, had requested the hiring of the licensed Muslim security force to patrol the city's public housing high-rises in September. Councilman Bell said the guards would be effective because, "residents relate better to Muslims."

As they walked through the building wearing gold hard hats, Mr. Henson, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and representatives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development inspected the apartments and stairwells and offered encouragement to workers as they scrubbed graffiti, painted and swept trash.

"We have heard from a lot of residents, and I thought we had to do something here," Mr. Henson said. "I have long-term plans for the other developments, but I don't have a long-term plan for Flag House. We've got to do some short-term things here."

The Housing Authority's lease with its tenants allows for inspection with a 48-hour notice. Letters informing the residents of the sweep were delivered to each unit on Thursday, said Sally Gold, an attorney who represents the Housing Authority.

'Tough solutions'

At one unit on the third floor, officials found no one home. They called for a locksmith, entered the apartment and changed the lock, leaving a note on the door for the resident to contact the management office.

"This is an experiment," Ms. Mikulski said. "But tough times call for tough solutions. We want to make sure that public housing is a way to a better life."

As the army of carpenters, painters, landscapers, inspectors, social workers, police and housing officials swept through his apartment building, Bobby Horton sat on the edge of a trash can across the street in stunned disbelief.

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