Lafayette Courts, the huge public housing project on the edge of downtown Baltimore, was a ghost town yesterday as demolition experts prepared to blow it up to make way for a new community.
At noon today, the six desolate high-rise towers that were home to thousands of poor families for four decades are scheduled to collapse in to ruins.
Seconds apart, in an orchestrated series of explosions, the 11-story brick and concrete buildings will tumble to the ground. If everything goes as planned, all that will be left within 20 seconds is a cloud of light brown dust covering five city blocks.
Tens of thousands of people are expected to converge on the surrounding area to watch the demolition that is being billed as "one of the largest multibuilding implosions in the Western Hemisphere." But the shock of the explosions will be limited to the 21.5-acre grounds.
It will take nearly 1,000 pounds of nitroglycerin explosives to level Lafayette Courts, the largest public housing complex in the nation outside Chicago.
Explosive charges have been strategically placed in 2,700 holes drilled into columns in the six buildings.
"This is a new day for Lafayette Courts and East Baltimore," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Democrat who represents the eastside. "This sparks a new beginning for us."
On the eve of the demolition, Mr. McFadden, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and a host of city officials stood in front of the vacant, graffiti-scarred towers to talk about rebuilding a community.
The city intends to develop 228 traditional rowhouses, including 18 for teen-age mothers, and a mid-rise building with 110 apartments for the elderly on the site. There also will be a day care center, a health clinic and recreation center with a McDonald's restaurant and a job-training program when the $115 million project is completed in 2 1/2 years.
The high-rise buildings that were as notorious for open drug dealing and gunfights as for their faulty heating and broken elevators already have been stripped bare. The windows, doors and electrical wiring were torn out during the past month.
Red and white signs surrounding the grounds warned: "Blasting area. Turn off 2-way radios."
Controlled Demolition Inc., a Baltimore County company that specializes in using small amounts of strategically placed explosives to make buildings gracefully collapse into themselves, was on the site for a week preparing for the demolition. Other demolition companies stripped the buildings of asbestos and wiring over the past 11 weeks.
The entire cost of the demolition is $6.7 million, mostly for asbestos removal and debris cleanup. The implosion costs $600,000.
Today, as the streets surrounding Lafayette Courts are blocked off, public housing officials and politicians will celebrate the demolition with a party and parade to begin at 9:30 a.m. at the William "Sugar" Caine Athletic Field at Monument and Aisquith streets.
The parade will move north on Central Avenue, east on Biddle Street, south on Caroline Street, west on Orleans back to Central Avenue, then North on Central to Dunbar High School. Former residents have been invited to a party at Dunbar High School, and the demolition will be shown live on WBAL-TV, Channel 11, and on WMAR-TV Channel 2.
Longtime tenants made a pilgrimage to Lafayette Courts yesterday evening to pay farewell. They recalled good times -- birthday parties, family reunions. But they also remembered all the times they had to walk past drug dealers and up the dank, forbidding stairs to their apartments.
For Carolyn Lamma, who stopped by last night, the demolition is a bittersweet occasion. She grew up in one of the 17 low-rise buildings, all but three of which will be leveled next week. But she often went to visit friends in the high-rises.
"My feelings are sort of mixed. It's where I came from, and it's good to see where we're going. I have good memories, also, but I was glad to leave," she said.
Some of the last residents of Lafayette Courts had left behind bits of their past. In one of the 17 low-rise buildings, a Mickey Mouse poster was stuck to a bedroom wall. A plastic Christmas tree sat by a garbage bin.
A broken record lay among the weeds outside. The label: "My Island of Dreams."
FROM HIGH-RISE TO NO-RISE IN 20 SECONDS
Beginning at noon today, Controlled Demolition Inc. will implode six high-rise buildings at the Lafayette Court housing project. The List below outlines the steps involved in demolishing the 21-acre site. The six will fall in 20 seconds.
1. ASBESTOS ABATEMENT: All asbestos is removed from the building, under the supervision of the Housing Authority.
2. SOFT STRIPPING: Recyclable materials are taken out and sold, including copper pipe, aluminum sashes on window frames and cast iron. Recycling reduces the need to use expensive landfill.