Flag House Courts: Suddenly cleaner, safer, nicer Drug dealers swept away with the filth

violence and fear yield to smiles of hope

November 01, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

The Girl Scouts met for the first time in years recently at the Flag House Courts public housing project. And last week, 16 Flag youngsters attended a Boy Scout meeting, hoping to re-energize a troop that was inactive for months.

On Saturdays, dozens of Flag children take part in Bible study classes. And yesterday, the council threw a big Halloween party, complete with a haunted house and goodie bags, for Flag's children.

These staples of community life had been all but stamped out at the East Baltimore public housing project by open drug dealing, rampant violence and Housing Authority neglect when The Sun ran a series of stories on Flag in May.

Those problems profoundly altered the rhythms of life for residents of Flag. Drug addicts had transformed vacant apartments into shooting galleries. Gun-toting drug dealers controlled the stairwells, often pointing their weapons in the faces of people who surprised them on the staircases. The crackle of gunfire was routine. Mildew grew on apartment walls because of water leaks that went unchecked for months in vacant units that abutted them.

Misery and fear were pervasive, and the best that law-abiding residents could do was tailor their lives to minimize trouble.

They yelled ahead to alert drug dealers that they were coming up the stairs. They did not allow their children outside to play unsupervised. They warned their friends not to come by to visit. People avoided sitting by their doors or windows, for fear of being clipped by a stray bullet.

In the face of that reality, even people desperate for affordable housing turned down opportunities to move to Flag. As recently as six months ago, 109 of the project's 487 apartments were vacant and in disrepair, even as more than 18,000 families languished on the Housing Authority's waiting list.

But much of that has changed since a horde of police officers and maintenance workers descended on Flag to rout the drug dealers and repair the buildings.

Now, the stairwells are clean, well-lit and safe. Every vacant apartment is being renovated, and units are coming "on line" at a rate of seven or eight a week, said a Housing Authority spokesman.

The open drug dealing has been pushed out of the buildings. The repair backlog has been cut by 80 percent, with only 216 work orders carried into September, the last month for which statistics are available.

Crime-related police calls have been cut dramatically, with only 23 reported in August. In August 1992, there were 83 crime-related calls to police from Flag's three high-rise buildings.

Hezekiah Bunch, chief of the Housing Authority's police force, said that there have been no violent crimes -- murder, rapes, or aggravated assaults -- reported in the buildings since the sweeps.

"I hate to call anything an unqualified success," said Daniel P. Henson III, the Housing Authority's executive director. "But I am confident that we have been able to change the pattern of things at Flag. Bad guys aren't able to just walk into buildings without being challenged."

The result, housing officials say, is that people are now eager to move to Flag.

"In the past, in most instances we couldn't give give away a unit at Flag," said Zack Germroth, a Housing Authority spokesman. "Now we have people readily accepting units there."

Venus White moved into a sparkling, newly renovated unit on the 12th floor of Flag high-rise two weeks ago. Previously, she was homeless and living mostly on the street for 22 months.

"It's OK here," said the 30-year-old mother of three who expects to be reunited with her children this week. "If you were on the street, you would take whatever they gave you. But I would have thought about [coming here before]. It was real rough."

Between June 1 and July 21, the Housing Authority launched three massive clean-ups at Flag -- one high-rise building at a time -- under a plan called Extraordinary Comprehensive Housekeeping Operation (ECHO). With each cleanup, nearly 400 maintenance workers and police officers converged on a high-rise to arrest drug dealers and squatters and make needed repairs. They even planted sod and flowers on the lawns surrounding the buildings. Officials said that each sweep cost about $200,000.

'No more drugs in the stairways'

The massive cleanup, coupled with the crash program to renovate the vacant units and implementation of new security procedures, is having a major impact for the estimated 1,200 residents of Flag.

"There are no more drugs in the stairways," said Marcene Barnes, 36, a mother of four and a lifelong resident of Flag. "They flushed them out of the building and put them down on the ground. The place is a lot cleaner, too."

Mark Atkinson, who has lived at Flag since 1991, agreed that Flag is a far safer place than it was before the cleanup.

"As far as drug dealing in the building, that doesn't go on now, not in the open," he said. "And since the sweep, I've heard only two gunshots. Normally, you can hear two gunshots down here in an hour."

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