Housing wisdom from '50s kids

Melvin S. Wachs

June 23, 1993|By Melvin S. Wachs

LOW-RISE public housing had been an accepted part of life in Baltimore City for a number of years, but in 1950, administrators in the Housing Authority and planners began to talk about shifting emphasis to high-rises.

It was a me-too idea, copied from other cities around the country. If there are too many poor people to house in low-rise buildings, the thinking went, don't impose public housing on middle-class neighborhoods. Rather, house the poor in inner-city towers; in other words, stack them up.

The bureaucrats proceeded to design proposals for two areas. One was a Fayette Street site, the other on Pratt Street. Later, these were given the names Lafayette Courts and Flag House Courts.

In the case of the Flag House, with the unveiling of preliminary plans, people in the community began to raise objections, especially as they envisioned increasing numbers of low-income residents high up in towers.

Neighborhood organizations and individuals expressed their concerns to the public housing administrators and their elected officials. They wrote, made telephone calls and appealed personally to officials not to have high-rise public housing in their neighborhoods, but the planning moved to more advanced phases.

While this was happening, an event occurred that was seemingly unrelated. The Southeastern Community Council, a local community coordinating organization, began to discuss what children in the area would do after schools closed for the summer vacation. A committee was selected to study possible programs and recommend steps to form a children's club. The committee decided to gear efforts to elementary-age children, and a program was developed consisting of walking tours to points of interest, informal recreation, refreshments and other activities related to the ages and interests of the children.

An unexpected matter was raised by the children in one of their club meetings. They wanted to learn about the high-rise public housing they heard was planned for their neighborhood. They mentioned elevator breakdowns and how people could get up and down, "bad things" that might happen to people on elevators, how trash would be dealt with, accidents if children played on the elevators and how residents would take to the way of life in high-rises. Remember, these were children, and this was 43 years ago.

The adult club leaders reported this meeting to me as their adviser and requested I seek information to answer the children's questions. I contacted the director of the public information office of the Housing Authority, and an assistant was assigned to deal with the children's questions.

After some additional discussion, the assistant agreed to attend a club meeting. The children raised their questions, but they got no answers. The assistant said only that proper measures would be taken to prevent problems.

And so the first high-rise public housing projects grew from the pavements of Baltimore. A new experience was in store for the residents, especially those housed in the upper levels. "Automatic" elevators were installed. Metal fences (resembling cages) were erected outside the buildings. Residents felt a sense of alienation as they were separated from other people by location and by lack of natural communication.

Not long after the projects were occupied, a number of problems surfaced. There were elevator breakdowns that stranded people for hours. The upper floors couldn't be reached by fire-fighting equipment or in emergencies when the elevators were down. Elevators were easy places for robberies and drug dealing. Children played in and on the elevators. Some were seriously hurt. Trash started to pile up in elevator shafts and at the bottom of trash chutes, in hallways and stairwells.

Still, the agencies that first introduced high-rise public housing planned additional units elsewhere in the city. Experience could have dictated an end to the program, but that didn't happen.

More than 40 years since the first high-rises were built in the city, we are paying for a policy that made little sense in the first place. The nightmare might have been averted in 1950 had city officials listened to and answered the insightful questions of a group of children.

Melvin S. Wachs was formerly coordinator and community activities adviser of the Baltimore Area Projects, an agency serving the needs of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

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