Lafayette Courts: 40 years from high hopes to oblivion

August 16, 1995|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff Writer

Almost 42 years ago, Baltimore celebrated when the first shovelful of dirt came out of the ground for the Lafayette Courts housing project, the beginning of construction for the "low-income apartments in the sky."

Now, city officials have another day of festivities planned in honor of the Aisquith Street high-rises. On Saturday, after a party and parade, the city will blow them up.

"I'm going to be there on Saturday. It's part of my history that's being blown up," said Shirley Wise, a 58-year-old beautician who lived at Lafayette Courts for 25 years, beginning the year the project opened in 1955.

"There's a lot of emotion involved. It used to be a wonderful place to live before they lost control of it," Mrs. Wise said. "I'm going to get some of the bricks after the demolition. I never want to forget that place."

The bricks will cost her $1 apiece, the going rate for the 1,000 or so that will be for sale Saturday morning, along with T-shirts, food and trinkets, in an eight-block-long party around the East Baltimore demolition site.

At noon, the six buildings will crumble into rubble as definitively as the very concept of high-rise public housing. Throughout the nation, high-rise projects built with lofty ideals in the middle of the century have sagged into disrepair, beset by crime, drugs and filthy conditions hardly fit for the rats in the corridors.

This year, Philadelphia imploded the 41-year-old Raymond Rosen homes, and St. Louis destroyed the decrepit George Vaughn complex. Baltimore joins the demolition derby with what Control Demolition Inc., the Phoenix, Md., company that will carry out the demolition, touts as "one of the largest multistructure implosions in the Western Hemisphere."

Demolition experts estimate it will take 16 to 20 seconds for all six buildings to crumble. Fourteen low-rise buildings at Lafayette also will be destroyed in the near future, but by the wrecking-ball method.

Eventually, the city plans to demolish all of its public housing high-rises.

In the mid-1950s, the high-rise idea was considered the answer to Baltimore's slum problem. A pastor blessed the Lafayette building site, which planners said would feature clean, ceramic-tiled apartments, push-button elevators and panoramic views of the harbor.

Time proved the planners wrong. Crime in the high-rises became so rampant by the 1990s that private security guards at times quit their jobs in frustration, after being shot at in their bulletproof lobby stations by criminals with weapons powerful enough to puncture the protective glass.

The planners also never envisioned a day when even the poor would have such things as air conditioners, washing machines and microwave ovens, which the buildings' electrical systems can't adequately support.

Now, the Lafayette demolitions are being heralded by city officials as a benchmark in city history, ushering out a failed idea and ushering in a plan to replace the high-rises with more family-oriented rowhouses.

Over the next 2 1/2 years, the city intends to replace the 806 apartments at Lafayette with 210 rowhouses, a 110-unit senior building and 18 apartments for teen-age mothers. The project is expected to cost $115 million in city, state and federal money.

"What we're trying to do now is look at what's worked in Baltimore, and that's townhouses and rowhouses," said Daniel P. Henson III, Baltimore's housing commissioner. "The high-rises were conceptually the wrong idea, and they were built with minimal planning. And the huge common areas, the stairwells, the corridors, were rife with possibilities for criminals."

Newspaper stories about the grand opening of the high-rises spoke of "penthouse views of the harbor and Civic Center" and said the tenants would be "$50-a-week laborers." But Mr. Henson said the main aim appeared to be segregating blacks.

"That clearly was one of the reasons the high-rises were constructed, so blacks would not go to a white neighborhood," Mr. Henson said. "These projects were designed to overwhelm a neighborhood and be an entity in and of themselves."

When Lafayette Courts opened, city housing officials had adopted a policy of eliminating segregation in the projects. Housing records from 1956, however, show that 812 of the 816 residents at Lafayette were black and four were white.

Perhaps the most famous of the old residents is Muggsy Bogues, who at 5-foot-3 is the shortest player in professional basketball. Mr. Bogues, who plays for the Charlotte Hornets, lived in Lafayette Courts for the first 22 years of his life.

He saw a man beaten to death with a baseball bat in the Lafayette courtyard when he was 12 years old, a vision he said he would never forget.

"You were liable to see anything when you walked out of the rec center. You could see a guy get stabbed with an ice pick," Mr. Bogues said on a visit to Baltimore yesterday.

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