Down with the projects! But what new public housing should go up?

September 22, 1995|By P. Clark

Just after noon on August 19 the downtown Baltimore skyline changed dramatically with the controlled demolition of the six concrete high-rise buildings that composed the Lafayette Courts.

Amid the hoots and hollers of joy and the raucous applause of many of its former residents, a concrete testament to a dour way of life succumbed after a long history of social commentary, ridicule and scorn.

I was enthralled by the systematic and controlled manner in which the buildings came down. I hear this was part of the honorable mayor's plan to revitalize the inner-city area and do away with a social enigma that Baltimore, like so many other cities, has been trying to cope with for a very long time.

Having lived in the projects at one time, I seriously wonder whether this planned attack -- down with the projects! -- will really solve the social ills that helped give the projects such a bad reputation in the first place.

In August 1960, amid similar controversy and civil-rights campaigns for ''adequate'' housing to replace the slum tenement dwellings that characterized Baltimore at that time, my family and I moved into a ninth-floor apartment in the Lexington Terrace high-rise project on North Fremont Avenue, a few miles northwest of the Lafayette Courts.

We arrived in a yellow taxicab with as many of our personal belongings as we could carry; a host of other things had been sent along ahead. The elevators worked beautifully. At the time it didn't occur to us to marvel at the fact. The walls were clean and smooth, a pinkish-apricot color free of graffiti, without a single crack. The concrete floors were solid. Rats were absent from our minds, as from the corridors.

Light-headed

We sat on the bare floor of the apartment with the door open wide, enjoying the cool breeze and the escape from our former slum home. It was like standing at the top of a summit.

For me -- 6 or 7 years old at the time, the eldest of six children -- it was the first time I'd ever been that far up in a high-rise building. It took some time for me to adjust to being able to see so much below. For a moment I sat back against the bare wall with my head between my legs, feeling light-headed.

There was hot and cold running water. When we turned on the faucet, the water seemed to gush from the wall spigots. There were pre-installed light fixtures and cabinets in the kitchen and bathroom. There were electric outlets and working ceiling lights in every room. The radiators really worked and didn't clink and clang in the wintertime.

Things have changed a lot. Thirty-five years ago, I had no concept or experience of a better living alternative than the ''projects'' had to offer. Perhaps there was no better alternative at that time.

But it didn't last long. An ominous metamorphosis descended upon the inner-city projects, bringing rapes, gangland murders, knifings, muggings, baseball-bat beatings, door-to-door thievery, lies, deceit and drugs. We moved out in 1975. I'm still surprised to learn that any of the other projects could have had worse reputations than Lexington Terrace had then.

The hardest part was the lack of privacy. The atmosphere at Lexington Terrace was always filled with malice, distrust and contempt. You couldn't trust a soul or let your guard down for even the briefest instant. Life was an endless struggle to survive.

At one point, a drug market was operating out of an upstairs apartment, run by a woman and her teen-age son. Between the junkies and the juvenile delinquents, daring to venture outside your apartment to the lower-lobby mail boxes to pick up the daily mail, or the welfare check, risked stabbings, broken boxes, beatings and purse snatchings.

I've had my share of junkies sniffing glue and using dope, and the putrid, blood-stained vomit left by barbiturate hopheads coming down from bad cough-syrup highs. Of broken elevators and the foul stench of garbage. Of stairways fouled with excrement. Of the summer heat and the constant threat of violent assault. Of the schoolgirls with protruding, pregnant bellies. Of the sirens of ambulances and police cars. Of gunshots tearing the quiet night and day.

Yet my experience tells me that there is an inordinate amount of good that public housing can do. A growing urban center like Baltimore really can't afford to stop making every possible effort to initiate innovative housing concepts. In fact, some radical housing innovation is called for. Mass transit and dispersed commercial development make the old housing schemes awkward, if not down-right obsolete.

''Multiple-level'' housing

We need some standardized form of ''multiple-level'' public housing -- something like those beautiful rectangular three- and four-story walkups we see out there in the county -- so nicely spaced one from the other, with trees and grass all around them.

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