Going out with a bang Starting over: The troubled Lexington Terrace project falls as part of a plan to improve the lives of public housing residents.

July 28, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

With 20,000 people watching, 700 pounds of nitroglycerin yesterday reduced the Lexington Terrace public housing project's five high-rise buildings to piles of rubble.

The red-brick towers, which stood on the western edge of downtown for 38 years and had become symbols of a nation's failed policy for housing poor people, collapsed into themselves leaving only clouds of brown smoke some 20 seconds after the first of five booms just before 10 a.m. signaled the ignition of the explosive charges that would bring the buildings down.

"We're taking some neighborhoods that have been troubled and making them into the jewels of this city," said Henry G. Cisneros, U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, just minutes after witnessing the demolition.

"Our primary goal in doing this is to improve the lives of people in public housing," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

The quick demolition was similar to a series of blasts that destroyed the 804-unit Lafayette Courts high-rise housing project behind the city's main Post Office in East Baltimore last August.

Yesterday, city, state and federal officials returned to that site for an 8 a.m. groundbreaking. Construction is to begin there in several weeks on a replacement community of 228 rowhouses, a 110-unit building for senior citizens and other facilities.

At Lexington Terrace, the mayor, City Council members, state legislators and local, state and federal housing officials stood in near-silence as the towers fell into a heap of bricks.

Schmoke clapped his hands and smiled as other officials cheered from the official viewing stand set up at the overpass at Schroeder and Franklin streets, three blocks west of the site.

In February 1993, on his first trip as housing secretary to a U.S. city, Cisneros, at the invitation of Schmoke, made an unannounced visit to Lexington Terrace, where he walked through urine-stained hallways and saw walls marred by bullets.

"Immediate things need to be done here," Cisneros said.

Recalling that visit yesterday to about 80 people at the ground- breaking, Cisneros said, "This is about [the government] keeping promises. The real promise was that together we were going to build new housing on this site."

Subsequently, the federal government promised the city $50 million for Lexington Terrace and another $65 million for Lafayette Courts, for rebuilding and related programs.

As the result of a settlement of a lawsuit announced last spring, the federal government is now required to give the city $300 million for replacement housing.

The demolition was the dramatic conclusion to a morning of ceremonies. After the groundbreaking, officials and some public housing residents went the 20 or so blocks west by motorcade to the official viewing platform, just blocks from the Lexington Terrace site, which is bounded by Martin Luther King on the east, Fremont Avenue on the west, Mulberry Street on the north and West Fayette Street on the south.

After a parade of bands and pompon girls and several brief speeches, a number of officials placed their hands on the ceremonial plunger as the crowd counted backward from 10. But the real ignition switch was operated by officials with Controlled Demolition Inc. of Baltimore County at the site.

The implosion, originally scheduled for 10: 15 a.m., was moved up to 10 a.m. so it wouldn't interfere with President Clinton's televised speech about the bombing of at Centennial Olympic Park park in Atlanta overnight.

The towers were imploded from south to north, ending with the structure at Mulberry and Martin Luther King.

Police began closing streets in a 72-square-block area at 9 a.m. By then, many nearby streets became choked with traffic. People sat on rowhouse stoops, the roof of a Murphy Homes high-rise and the beds and roofs of pickup trucks and cars lining area streets.

Just 335 of Lexington Terrace's 677 units were occupied when the city began relocating residents two years ago for the demolition. Two buildings were closed in 1993 because of deterioration.

By fall 1998, residents are to begin moving into the first of 303 rowhouses to be completed. A 100-unit senior citizen building is planned along with a business center, day care center and recreational/neighborhood center.

Lorraine Ledbetter, president of the Lexington/Poe tenant council, burst into tears at the sight of the demolition, but said she was recalling many of the people who had lived there, not lamenting the fall of the buildings.

"Good riddance. I won't miss those buildings one bit," she said.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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