Flag House Courts celebrates rebirth

June 13, 1993|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Staff Writer

It was a good day.

Big speakers boomed the bass of music -- sometimes live,

sometimes off the radio. The sun beamed brightly despite predictions of cloudy skies. Pineapple and orange snowballs awaited those seeking a cool remedy. Hot dogs sizzled on the grill.

And smiles sparkled in conversation.

The old stony, weed-ridden playground in the middle of Flag House Courts was the center of celebration yesterday afternoon as about 300 residents and a few city officials toasted with canned drinks to the recent rejuvenation of one of Baltimore's most squalid housing developments.

"We got together to bring some pride back to the community," said Susan B. Pierce, Flag House Courts housing manager. "This place was falling apart. It's like a rebirth around here."

Just two weeks earlier, Housing Authority and city police tackled the problems of drugs, crime and maintenance failures at Building 107, one of the subsidized housing complex's three high-rises. Operation ECHO (Extraordinary Comprehensive Housekeeping Operation) changed that.

Fresh paint still covers graffiti-painted walls, visitors are required to have passes and three guards from the Nation of Islam patrol the grounds. A garden, once an anachronism on what were syringe- and trash-covered areas, adorns the front of the building.

The residents of East Baltimore's Flag House Courts clearly enjoyed their first block party yesterday at what they called a rare show of community organizing.

"Functions like this give people a sense of community," said Daniel P. Henson III, the city's new public housing chief. "Something like this would have been impossible a year ago. ECHO helped."

Regency, an a cappella group from East Baltimore, charmed the audience with its rendition of "Under the Boardwalk."

Residents danced and lip-synced to the music, and neighbors ** who hadn't formally met each other chatted about the event. Several booths set up offered high blood pressure screenings, condoms, AIDS prevention pamphlets and information for military enlistment.

At 1 p.m., City Council President Mary Pat Clarke helped Dels. Elijah E. Cummings and Hattie N. Harrison award citations to Flag House Courts residents and workers who dedicated their efforts to improve the community.

Among the honorees was Robert Johnson, a volunteer who sweeps the playground and cleans stairwells.

"I love it," he said. "I try to keep things safe for the kids."

"It's all cool to me," said Victor Gray, 13.

And why wouldn't it have been?

On the same playground, he had just defended the pride of the community by contributing 12 points to the Flag House Tigers' 40-32 victory over the Harford County Eagles in a Boys and Girls Club of America basketball tournament.

Nina Datcher, 35, said she enjoyed the party, but the festivities could not make her forget the imminent danger she faces in Building 127, which has not been overhauled by the Housing Authority.

"Today was nice, but we need this on a regular basis," she said. "I usually stay in. Down here you're in a totally different world."

Meanwhile, in another show of community activism on the west side of town, Lexington Terrace residents conducted a cleanup competition. Residents of Building 221 scraped, picked, hauled, dumped and scrubbed to improve their community.

The main challenge of revitalizing the city's 17 housing developments is matching official action with community participation, Mr. Henson said. The physical redevelopment of the 18,000 units alone can take three to five years of planning, he said.

"This is a long process," Mr. Henson said. "This is a matter of us not being able to move as fast as the residents want us to move. A lot of community empowerment goes into helping us turn around the housing problem in Baltimore."

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