Lafayette Courts ends in 20 seconds of explosions, cheers, tears

August 20, 1995|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Kate Shatzkin contributed to this article.

After standing for decades as a bleak symbol of urban decay, Baltimore's Lafayette Courts housing project came to a dramatic end yesterday, collapsing into rubble and dust in a matter of seconds.

Shortly after noon, a series of slow, staccato explosions briefly shook the ground and flattened the desolate 11-story towers that had loomed over the eastern edge of downtown Baltimore. The spectacular display lasted just 20 seconds but fascinated tens of thousands.

Crowds on the surrounding streets cheered, and many people wept, as the six high-rise buildings shuddered from the blast of 995 pounds of dynamite and crumbled.

A few seconds later, all that was left of the high-rise project that opened with high hopes in 1955 was a billowing cloud of light brown dust and 45,000 tons of crushed concrete and bricks.

Traffic on the Jones Falls Expressway slowed to a crawl as some people got out of cars to watch. Office buildings and garage rooftops were packed with spectators.

One deadly accident was reported about 15 minutes before the demolition: A 48-year-old man apparently fell from the Orleans Street viaduct near Guilford Avenue while perhaps trying to get a better view.

Top city officials called the dynamiting of Lafayette Courts a final chapter in high-rise housing for the poor and the beginning of a new community.

"It was literally breathtaking," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said. "We all had a tear in one eye and a big grin on our faces at the same time. It's given Baltimore a great lift."

Over the next 2 1/2 years, 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 21.5-acre site off Aisquith Street. There also will be a day-care center, a health clinic, a McDonald's restaurant and a job-training program when the $115 million project is completed.

Baltimore is the latest city in the nation to demolish towers that were built to provide better housing for the poor in the middle of the century but now are beset by crime, drugs and miserable living conditions. The city is seeking federal grants to blow up and redevelop its three remaining high-rise projects -- Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes on the west side and Flag House Courts near Little Italy -- in the next two years.

Yesterday's explosions tore out the center of Lafayette Courts, leaving 17 vacant low-rise buildings, all but three of which will be destroyed by wrecking ball in the next weeks.

Thousands of people celebrated with a parade and a party in the blocked-off streets surrounding Lafayette Courts for more than two hours before the noon implosion. Bands played, and bricks from the high-rises were sold for $1 apiece, in the eight-block-long party.

City police could not provide estimates of the crowd size. Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said as many as 30,000 people had gathered along the parade route and around Dunbar High School, but cautioned that it was a rough guess.

For many longtime residents of the East Baltimore complex, it was an emotional event. The demolition saddened but also heartened people, who talked of rebuilding a community that will no longer be known as "the projects," a place of well-kept homes and gardens instead of tiny apartments, broken elevators and trash-strewn grounds patrolled by drug dealers.

"It's a good thing," said B. J. Jones, 35, whose wife, Lynnette, lived for years in one of the high-rise buildings. "A lot of people who lived over there are good people who deserve a better chance."

The couple now live in nearby Somerset Homes, a low-rise

development. Asked if he would have ever moved into one of the towers, Mr. Jones said simply: "I think I would have slept on a park bench first."

Sheria Winstead, 17, who grew up at Lafayette Courts, said: "It's sad but in a way it's kind of good. There was so much trouble. You couldn't even walk around there at nighttime."

Stephanie Williams Bullock, 42, who lived on the fourth floor of one of the high-rises in the 1960s, came back from Oakland, Calif., for the demolition.

She remembered the good times of her childhood, when Lafayette Courts was "a lovely place," with clean apartments, modern fixtures and safe enough that neighbors left their doors unlocked. But she also recalled tough times when she would visit after she had moved and found it filthy and her mother "a prisoner in her own home."

When she saw the building of her childhood collapse, Ms. Bullock, who was videotaping it, burst into tears.

"All the memories," she said.

The first sign of the destruction was a series of quick flashes that ripped like lightning through each of the six vacant, dilapidated towers.

Seconds apart, in an orchestrated series of explosions from charges strategically placed in 2,695 holes drilled into columns, the buildings gracefully caved in.

The shock of the explosion was kept to a minimum and could not be felt two blocks away. The noise level was less than a typical thunderclap.

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