Cleanup, better security transform Flag House Courts Residents of 107 Albemarle astounded

June 07, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Long hidden by thick layers of grime, the metal strips separating the marble tiles in the lobby at 107 S. Albemarle St. glistened yesterday. Flowers bloomed in the newly landscaped front yard. And for the first time in years, residents walked the building's stairways without fear of encountering outlaws brandishing guns.

Nearly a week after more than 350 workers launched a crash cleanup at the Flag House Courts public housing high-rise and officials instituted new security procedures, most residents were astounded by the impact.

"To actually feel safe coming into your own building is great," said Jean Durant, who has lived in the 107 building almost eight years. "I like the idea of the young men walking the building to make sure that you're OK and your apartment is OK."

So far, the change wrought by Operation ECHO, as the Housing Authority of Baltimore City dubbed the cleanup, is dramatic. When a reporter for The Sun visited Flag House Courts for four weeks in February and March, the building was filthy, dangerous and seemingly beyond the authority's ability to manage.

People streamed in and out of 107 and the other two Flag high-rises without so much as a question from the private security guards who hid in the front security booths. The housing authority police were nowhere to be found. Lookouts for drug dealers sat on milk crates peering through the chain-link fence, watching for police.

And most days, a man stood in front of 107 steering people into his apartment where they could buy syringes and, if he knew them well enough, shoot up.

A different situation

But this weekend, the situation was far different.

There is no more free access to the 107 building. Anyone attempting to enter must go through a metal detector at the front door, then show a photo-identification card to a polite, unarmed guard from Nation of Islam Security Inc. Visitors must be signed in by the tenant they came to visit. Each visitor's name and the name of the tenant the visitor has come to see are kept in a log.

At least three guards are on duty at the 107 building at all times, under the $25,000-a-month contract with the housing authority, officials said. The guards, who wear crisp uniforms accented by red bow ties, walk the perimeter of the building, usually in twos. They also patrol the stairs and hallways, often carrying a broom and dust pan to pick up litter.

As a result, the front of the building was virtually free of trash, and the only people sitting in the walkways were tenants enjoying the view. Operation ECHO even seemed to have affected other Flag buildings, where there seemed to be less loitering and wide-open drug activity.

Sometimes too peaceful

"The change is fantastic. It reminds me of the 1960s and how this place was then," said Dorothy G. Scott, who has lived in the 107 building for 25 years. "Now you don't even hear a bottle break at night. It's too peaceful. I've been oversleeping at night."

Housing authority Executive Director Daniel P. Henson III said he wanted the Nation of Islam guards because "what we have done is that we have effectively installed community policing. They gain confidence by working with the tenants."

While Operation ECHO was limited to one of the three Flag high-rises, it is sparking some optimism that had long been missing at the housing project.

For the first time in years, organizers of the annual Flag House Courts Day celebration are planning a big, festive bash. Residents say the past few parties were small affairs, hidden away in the community room where people would sit around eating hot dogs and potato salad.

This year, the event -- set for Saturday -- will take place at the playground and courtyard behind the 107 building. Carnival games, basketball competition, plenty of food, and information booths from health and education groups are planned.

"The only thing we are missing is a DJ for the music," said Cheryl Smith, a cashier in Flag's management office and volunteer coordinator of the event.

During operation ECHO, the housing authority made close to 600 repairs in the 84 occupied apartments in 107. And the building's 34 vacant apartments, once largely taken over by drug-using squatters, are being renovated under private contracts. Flag manager Susan B. Pierce added that work has begun on the renovation of all 109 vacant units throughout the Flag House Courts complex.

Despite all of that, the new security is the biggest single difference resulting from Operation ECHO. But it is also the one element of the cleanup that sparked resentment among some tenants, who believe the presence of the guards intrudes on their privacy and freedom of movement.

"It's like being locked up in jail here," said Leslie Jones, a longtime Flag tenant who is launching a petition drive in an effort to get rid of the guards.

But other residents say the hassles posed by the guards are a small price to pay for a safe building.

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