Transformation at Flag High-Rises

June 09, 1993

It would be silly and simplistic to suggest that the recent $208,000 cleanup blitz at East Baltimore's Flag House Courts has ended long-standing problems there. Only one of the three troubled high-rises was cleaned and fixed up, after all. Yet the symbolic importance of this remarkable operation should not be discounted.

A new standard of order and cleanliness has been established for all to see. Any deviation from it should now raise immediate questions and action by the Housing Authority.

So far, so good. Things have improved markedly. Dope dealers and other miscreants who do not belong to Flag have been driven away. Not everyone is completely happy, though.

Some residents grumble about the strictness of new security measures. But by issuing identification badges and hiring unarmed guards from Nation of Islam Security Inc. to check residents, Housing Authority director Daniel P. Henson III has made a clean break with the lax enforcement of rules that made the high-rise complex so distressing. Those who cannot tolerate this kind of regimentation can leave -- or be evicted.

"If we want to change things, we have to get rid of the human trash as well as the physical trash," Mr. Henson remarks. "And . . . most of the human trash will . . . try to drift back . . ."

The new standard established at Flag is a challenge to employees of the Housing Authority as well. They also have a choice. In recent weeks, large numbers of employees have been reassigned in a demonstration that Mr. Henson will have little tolerance for inaction and complacency.

In the past, top city housing officials often blamed the problems of Baltimore's public housing on the federal government and its regulations -- as if that explained bad local management and lack of discipline in the projects.

But the transformation of the Flag House Courts from a troubled high-rise complex into one which one resident says is "too peaceful" shows what can be done. The nation's public housing is in crisis, no doubt about it. But demolition of high-rise hells cannot produce livable environments in new complexes unless residents decide to free themselves of grime, crime and dope dealers.

The city can help the residents to achieve better conditions. But residents themselves decide the fate of their buildings.

Any lasting improvement can come only through their cooperation.

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