Murphy Homes falls victim to change

Demolition: Building high-rises for public housing is an idea whose time is past. By 2001, all such projects in Baltimore will be gone.

July 02, 1999|By Tom Pelton and Amy Oakes | Tom Pelton and Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

As Baltimore moves to be the first city in the nation to demolish all its high-rise public housing, it is exploding an idea for sheltering the poor born of utopian theories and segregation.

City officials plan to use 375 pounds of dynamite at 10 a.m. Saturday to demolish the 14-story George B. Murphy Homes on the west side. The buildings will be the third of four high-rise projects to be torn down in the city by July next year.

Following a national trend that will see some 100,000 public housing high-rise units leveled in Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis and a dozen other cities by 2003, Baltimore plans to replace the towers with townhouses.

Housing officials believe that a mixture of townhouses -- some sold at moderate prices to working families and others government-subsidized rental rowhouses for the poor -- will encourage an ethic of responsibility and the feeling of an old-fashioned community.

The high-rise projects that sprang up across the country in the 1950s and 1960s have been criticized as "warehouses for the poor" because they packed as many poor blacks into as small an area as possible.

By returning to a rowhouse concept for public housing, Baltimore is going back to a design once thought better replaced with "modern" high-rises.

The Swiss-born architect Edouard Jeanneret (known as LeCorbusier) preached the flattening of crime-ridden "cities of horror" and replacing them with "radiant cities" of high-rises with wide plazas and expressways between them.

Maximum density in high-rises would help cities save money building utility lines, leave lots of space for parks, cut down on commuting and allow a utopian society in which people would enjoy 11 hours of recreation a day, LeCorbusier wrote in his 1947 book, "Quand les Cathedrales Etaient Blanches."

During a recent news conference, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III put some blame on LeCorbusier for popularizing an idea that ended up packing the poor into sterile-looking boxes.

But he also pointed the finger at city leaders of the time for using LeCorbusier's ideas to segregate blacks when they built the city's four high-rise complexes during the 1950s and 1960s, finishing with the Murphy Homes in 1963.

A 1945 report by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City on "Negro housing" advocated the clearing of slums to concentrate blacks in high-density apartment buildings.

Henson gestured toward the vacant windows of the Murphy Homes yesterday as he said it was perhaps too easy to point out the flawed thinking of the past.

"Before the Murphy Homes were built, this was all slum housing here, without indoor plumbing or electricity," Henson said. "I think the people who were doing the planning back then thought they were doing people a favor by putting people into what they considered to be `modern' buildings."

Murphy Homes was named for George B. Murphy Sr., one of the founders of the Afro-American newspaper. By the 1990s, the buildings with their 757 apartments had become rundown and were near one of the worst drug markets in the city.

The city plans to replace Murphy Homes with a $56 million collection of townhouses called Heritage Crossing. The community will surround a park and feature 75 low-income rental rowhouses and 185 townhouses for sale to people who qualify for low-interest loans.

In its height and style, Heritage Crossing will be somewhat similar to Baltimore's first public housing complex, Edgar Allan Poe Homes built on Amity Street in 1941.

One difference is that the Poe Homes are all rental units. The homeowners in Heritage Crossing will have a financial motive to keep their yards and buildings clean, city official said.

The city is sponsoring a parade and a party at 1700 Pennsylvania Ave. Saturday to celebrate the demolition. But former Murphy Homes residents say they'll have mixed feelings about seeing the buildings collapse.

Mary Holmes, the 70-year-old former tenant council president, talked about the buildings at a recent picnic of former residents.

Holmes said she and her children moved into a three-bedroom apartment in 1978, after her husband became sick and could no longer work.

Although she resented having to be there, Homes said she soon became emotionally attached to Murphy Homes.

"I was one of those people who said I would never live in public housing," said Holmes. "But this [demolition] upsets me. It had been my home for so long."

In contrast, Delores Miller, 64, said she's happy her former home will be reduced to dust.

Miller, who now lives in Poe Homes, said. "I remember one New Year's eve when a bullet came through my window, almost hit me. They should never have built those high-rises."

The biggest fans of demolition are those who have gone through the experience.

Former residents watched the city demolish the high-rise Lafayette Courts in 1995 and build Pleasant View Gardens, a community of brick townhouses with porches surrounding a tree-lined plaza.

From the rubble of the Murphy Homes, city officials hope to build a similar community.

"This is 100 percent better than a high-rise," said Delores Jones, a 39-year-old utility worker and a Pleasant View Gardens resident. "We still have a few problems with kids getting out of hand, but here people really tend to take care of their homes, because they own them."

George Milburn, 40, pointed from his stoop in Pleasant View Gardens over the rooftops to the Flag House Courts public housing complex on Pratt Street. The city plans to demolish this in July 2000 to rid itself of its last high-rise public housing.

"You know what that looks like to me? A penitentiary," Milburn said. "There are cages around the staircases. Here, it's beautiful. I feel free."

Pub Date: 7/02/99

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