Residents of two of the poorest public housing communities in Annapolis nearly turned down a chance to hope last week because they didn't trust the government that offered it.
HOPE VI, an ambitious, multimillion dollar federal project, would allow the Annapolis Housing Authority to raze and replace deteriorating public housing in the Clay Street community and also bring education and job training opportunities.
But residents there have a keen recollection of similar promises made 30 years ago, before urban renewal wiped out dozens of black businesses, scattered hundreds of black families to housing projects on the city fringes and replaced much of their community with a parking garage.
Many Clay Street residents want to believe that the HOPE VI project -- which they say sounds too good to be true -- is true, but many others aren't about to take that risk again.
"We got a parking garage out of 'urban removal,' " said Jimmy Carter, 71, who was born and raised in a tan, three-story house on Clay Street. "Those slickers came in here and swindled people. That's what they did. They told people they could move back after everything was rebuilt, but then they priced it too high.
"It was a surprise punch in the head," Carter said. "It used to be beautiful here. We had a black hotel, stores, barbershops and restaurants. But urban removal killed it. Now, they're trying to do it again."
Across the country, city housing authorities have received hundreds of millions of dollars in HOPE VI grants -- a relatively new program that mixes subsidized housing with privately owned homes. It calls for aesthetic and human development improvements while residents are taught to become self-sufficient homeowners.
The program is based in part on the writings of African-American sociologist William J. Wilson. If poor people live among 'u middle-income families, the theory goes, they will improve their own situations.
The program has received mixed reactions.
In Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project, residents accused housing officials who introduced the plan of trying to steal valuable property. Efforts to introduce HOPE VI in San Francisco sparked passionate support as well as virulent opposition. Baltimore has embraced it for the most part, applying it to the Lafayette Court and Lexington Terrace housing projects.
Now, the controversy has flared in the Obery Court and College Creek Terrace communities in Annapolis.
"Even if the housing authority has the best of intentions, the community's whole experience with urban renewal and other federal programs has created too much distrust," said James R. Cohen, a University of Maryland, College Park professor and lecturer on urban studies and planning. "People are just going to assume they are being ripped off and deceived."
It is too early to tell whether HOPE VI will be effective, he said. It is understandable that people would resent it, he said, but they would "also miss out on taking advantage of an opportunity that might be there."
Even children sitting in the shade of the Obery Court Recreational Center last week had concerns about HOPE VI.
"You're gonna get put out," 13-year-old Shaylia Allen explained to her friends. "I wouldn't want to leave my house."
Nyra Pindell, 11, who lives in College Creek Terrace, said nobody wants to move because they fear they will have no place to go.
Their words reflect those of hundreds of other residents. It might explain why the community almost rejected the Annapolis Housing Authority's proposal to apply for the HOPE VI grant. For them, the desire to improve their community is great, but the fear of losing their homes is greater.
Houses for ownership
If HOPE VI comes to Annapolis, it would allow the city to raze the Obery Court and College Creek Terrace housing complexes and buy some private property to build about 200 townhouses.
More than 90 townhouses would be available for ownership and 106 for public housing and private rental, compared with the 163 public housing units now in Obery Court and College Creek Terrace.
Residents know not all of them will be able to move back. That's why they say they are convinced the Housing Authority is trying to cheat them out of the College Creek waterfront real estate. Its close proximity to the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, State House and the city's historic district makes it valuable.
"That waterfront, that's why they're shoving us all out," said 54-year-old Vernon Smith, rocking in a chair on his porch as he watched Clay Street traffic pass byhis College Creek Terrace apartment. "They don't have anywhere for anybody to go. They shoved everybody out years ago, and now you can't even find a black restaurant anywhere in this city."
The Clay Street community dates to the 1600s, when African slaves and free blacks are believed to have lived in the area. Over the years, it became the center of the black community.
College Creek Terrace was built in 1940 and neighboring Obery Court in 1952.