A farewell feast at doomed high-rise 'Breaking us apart': An extended family with deep roots in Lexington Terrace celebrates a bittersweet Thanksgiving reunion before the worn complex is demolished.

November 24, 1995|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Everything was in place. White candles flickered on the table. A mouthwatering aroma of roast turkey drifted from the kitchen. Envelopes for the Christmas gift drawing hung from the tree.

Yet as her sister, cousins and 84-year-old aunt bustled about putting the final touches on the Thanksgiving feast, Tammy Snead felt sad.

This would be the last Thanksgiving her large, close-knit family celebrated in the 10th-floor apartment at the Lexington Terrace housing project in West Baltimore, an apartment she had lived in all her life.

"My whole 32 years here have been an open house," she said. "Friends, family, neighbors come in. Sometimes they don't even knock. This Thanksgiving is hard, because we don't even know where we're going to be next year. They're breaking us apart."

Lexington Terrace, long one of Baltimore's most dilapidated public housing developments, is in its final months. The city plans to tear down the half-vacant complex dominated by five worn high-rises on the western edge of downtown in the spring.

For many of the 280 families still living in the high-rise towers, yesterday's holiday was bittersweet. Some looked forward to moving up and away from the outdated, often crime-ridden buildings. Others feared they would be scattered from friends and relatives and lose a sense of togetherness that was a way of life.

"No matter what, this has always been home," said Loretta Thompson, who moved into Lexington Terrace when it opened in 1958 and raised her five children there. "I really don't want to leave the community, because I feel so close to people here."

On the overcast November day, families at Lexington Terrace and elsewhere turned to help elderly and less-fortunate neighbors.

Volunteers served turkey dinners at homeless shelters across the state. Tens of thousands of needy people lined up for Bea Gaddy's annual Thanksgiving giveaway at East Baltimore's Dunbar High School. Ms. Gaddy, who served her first Thanksgiving meal for the poor in 1981 with the money she won with a 50-cent lottery ticket, also organized several thousand dinners that were delivered to seniors and shut-ins.

At her high-rise building at 755 W. Lexington St., Ms. Snead greeted relatives and longtime neighbors, most of whom did not have to come far. Her sister Barbara McKinney lives across the hall. Another sister, JoAnn Snead, has an apartment on the second floor, and her cousins, Jacqueline and Karen Parker, live on the seventh floor. Her brother, Eric Snead, has a place in another high-rise at Lexington Terrace.

Her 84-year-old aunt, Hilda White, lives in a senior building on Holland Street but spends almost every weekend with Ms. McKinney. She was in the kitchen yesterday, peeling potatoes and gossiping with Ms. McKinney as she checked off the menu: two turkeys, a ham, mashed potatoes, potato salad, sauerkraut, corn, peas, homemade rolls, five kinds of greens and nine pies.

Ms. Snead's comfortable, three-bedroom apartment -- the same

one her parents moved into on Jan. 21, 1959 -- barely seemed big enough to hold all the relatives and friends. Everyone wanted to share memories of the building that was more a symbol of family unity than of public housing's stereotypical image of social decay.

For much of the 1980s and early '90s, Lexington Terrace was like the city's three other public high-rise campuses -- notorious for .. drug dealing, crime and poor living conditions. The dark, creaking elevators often broke down. The wiring was faulty, the heat hard to regulate. Maintenance workers often were overwhelmed or intimidated by drug dealers.

But the extended Snead family painted the building's stairwells and stenciled flowers on the walls. They found a way to stick together, to make a home amid the deterioration, and they loved Lexington Terrace because of it.

"Neighbors became family, and we were all together," Ms. McKinney said.

The 677-unit complex is scheduled to be torn down as early as March, seven months after the city demolished Lafayette Courts, an 806-unit high-rise development on the east side. Both will be rebuilt as part of a $293 million overhaul of four high-rise complexes.

Families already have begun to move out of the five towers at Lexington Terrace, two of which have been empty and boarded for several years. Many expect to leave for other public housing or get rental-subsidy certificates to move into private apartments over the Christmas holiday.

Although he shares her feelings, Zachary Newsome, Ms. Snead's husband, is trying to reassure her by taking an optimistic view of the coming move. He is hopeful that moving will offer more opportunities for their children, Whittney, 6, and Zachary, 13.

"I know it's going to be nice," he said. "We've always struggled, but we always made out, and we will wherever we go."

His dream is to move into a decent rowhome -- but he wishes it could be in the same neighborhood as the rest of the family.

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