Complaints were easy to find yesterday at the Riverdale Village Apartments: peeling paint, flooded and sewage-filled basements, vandalized and boarded units, drug trafficking and crime.
Carlos Alford, a 24-year old vacuum cleaner salesman, has lived in the Essex-Middle River complex for a year. He smiled, struggled to find the words for his view of the place and then exclaimed: "It's, it's like the county projects!"
But Baltimore County officials are hoping to change that. The 1,100-unit complex off the 1900 block of Eastern Blvd. and the run-down 828-unit Villages of Tall Trees have been targeted by the county's new Community Conservation Program for its first major effort to reverse urban decline.
Built in the World War II era to house defense workers, they are deemed the worst apartment communities in the already stressed Essex-Middle River area. Tall Trees, a few blocks south and across Eastern Boulevard, accounted for 36 percent of drug arrests in the 65,000-population Essex police precinct last year.
Riverdale Village is a sprawling series of two-story brick buildings, many with broken windows and doors covered by plywood. The buildings are arranged in U-shapes along a maze of streets, courts and parking lots in a complex graced by scores of mature trees and shrubs. But the greenery does not hide the rampant signs of deterioration. It's so bad that County Council Chairman Vincent Gardina said he would rather bulldoze it than try to save the complex.
The 105 buildings at Tall Trees are divided among 38 owners. Riverdale is owned by Richard Schlesinger of Freeport, N.Y. He has not responded to telephone calls since Wednesday, when county government and business leaders met to plan the turnaround campaign.
Mr. Gardina, who represents the area, suggested this week that the county buy Riverdale, demolish it and sell the land to a developer.
Jane Metzger, 72, is a neighbor of Riverdale, a homeowner for 41 years a few doors away on Marlyn Avenue. For eight years before that, she lived in one of Riverdale's apartment buildings with her late husband.
With the big trees and mature shrubs, Riverdale was a nice, pretty place to call home just after the war. No longer.
"It's getting really bad, she said, supporting her weight with a walker-cane. "I was robbed getting out of my car, and [the culprit] ran into the apartments," she said.
Told of Mr. Gardina's suggestion to bulldoze the complex, she heartily agreed. "Do it! Do it! Do it!" she said.
But for many, Riverdale is home. With monthly rents as low as $225, including heat and hot water, it is affordable. Residents pay up to $400 a month for a two-bedroom unit.
James Freitag, 53, who has been there for nine years and lives on disability payments, said he is satisfied with his place but conceded that the complex has problems. "It's a dump," he said, but "it's the only way I can afford something."
Yvonne Coleman, 24, said she and her two preschool children moved to Riverdale from nearby Tall Trees because of a plumbing problem there. Her main complaint now is the roaches swarming over her pleasant though overheated apartment. The maintenance men spray every week, but it has no effect. "It's disgusting," she said.
She also complained of peeling paint that her toddler daughter sometimes chews, water in the building's basement, and buckling floorboards, mold, mildew and odors in her first-floor unit.
"At $275 a month, I didn't expect anything," she said.
Still, some people were happy with their homes at Riverdale. Homer Gray, 67, a retired Eastern Stainless Steel worker, is one of them.
"It's like a lot of places. There's crime everywhere," he said. And asked if he liked living there, Mr. Gray said, "I guess I have or I surely wouldn't have stayed here for 29 years."
The conservation program was designed to strengthen older county neighborhoods to prevent blight and middle-class residents' flight to such places as Harford and Carroll counties, along with the income tax revenue they represent.
Seeking community participation, planners scheduled a meeting with area residential and business leaders for this morning at the Essex library.