After 36 years, a pile of memories

Murphy Homes high-rises, once home to hundreds, imploded in W. Baltimore

July 04, 1999|By Sarah Pekkanen and Zerline A. Hughes | Sarah Pekkanen and Zerline A. Hughes,SUN STAFF

In a spectacular kickoff to the July Fourth weekend, Baltimore was treated yesterday to a display that most people get to see only on a movie screen: the thunderous demolition of four 14-story buildings.

At 10 a.m., hundreds of onlookers shouted the "Three-two-one!" countdown, and the George B. Murphy Homes public housing complex, rigged with 375 pounds of dynamite, roared to the ground in just 20 seconds.

Onlookers cheered and former residents wept as a giant cloud of brown dust rose where Murphy Homes stood for 36 years.

"I lived on the 13th floor for 10 years," said Joyce Hough, whose eyes watered as she watched her former home disappear. "I moved in right after they built them, so I was able to see them build it and tear it down. I got up at 6 in the morning so I wouldn't miss this. I brought my children and grandchildren."

Joseph H. Jackson, 28, was among those crowded around the fenced perimeter of a 2-block-wide buffer zone around the West Baltimore buildings. Jackson's 15-month-old son, Jordan, had an even better view from his dad's shoulders.

"It looked like dominoes," Jackson marveled. "It was so precise. It was beautiful."

The Myrtle Avenue building fell first. It was followed six seconds later by two buildings simultaneously collapsing at Myrtle and George Street. Finally, just 13 seconds after the initial blast, the fourth building, along Fremont Avenue, toppled with a boom.

With the temperature hovering near 90 degrees, people battled back with bottled water, hand-held fans and ice cream cones. Some carried coolers as they staked out prime spots to view the buildings tilt and crumble in a carefully synchronized sequence.

The result, most agreed, was more impressive than any fireworks display -- not surprising, given the demolition's $7 million price tag.

The event had the air of a carnival, complete with a preblast parade of drummers and vendors who hawked $10 T-shirts that read "July 3, 1999: Last Stance." For some former Murphy Homes residents who greeted each other with hugs and shouts, it was more like a reunion.

Ebony McClenny, 14, wore a T-shirt hand-printed with the names of friends from the housing project where she grew up. "I'm on the east side now, and I don't like it," she said. "I'll be moving back when they rebuild."

The four buildings, which once held 758 apartments, were demolished to clear the way for a new $58 million, neighborhood-style complex called Heritage Crossing, which will include privately owned town homes as well as public housing apartments.

The implosion yesterday was the third of four demolitions aimed at replacing Baltimore's high-rise projects with more attractive, healthier living environments. Four years ago, the Lafayette Courts project in East Baltimore was reduced to rubble. In July 1996, the Lexington Terrace complex on the west side met the same fate. And next July, Flag House Courts near Little Italy is to be torn down.

The swiftness of yesterday's implosions startled some onlookers, including Eva L. Jones, who watched the Hollywood-like spectacle from her rowhouse in the 500 block of N. Schroeder St.

"It was so sudden," Jones said, adding that she hurried to close her windows when the giant dust cloud headed her way.

Though her nephew climbed onto her roof to get a better view, the 84-year-old Jones chose to stay inside: "I might not get back in."

Other onlookers crowded around a ceremonial stage at West Mulberry and Poppleton streets. There, 7th District Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings hailed Baltimore's leadership in wiping out the outdated policy of building high-rise projects to house the poor. Critics say such projects forced poor blacks into segregated areas.

But some protesters were unhappy with the new plan, too. As the congressman spoke, they complained that the cost of the new complex's town homes -- which the Housing Authority of Baltimore City estimated at $80,000 each -- is beyond the reach of the poor.

Cummings, however, said he would refuse to let the protesters "spoil the day."

"When we think about all that has happened in this neighborhood, all the children raised here and, sadly, the many that have [died] here, this is a great day," he said. "I'm glad to be here today as we open the doors of opportunity."

For one couple, the demolition offered a chance for an unusual wedding anniversary celebration.

Ray Zukowski, 33, an explosives technician with Controlled Demolition Inc., the Phoenix, Baltimore County, company overseeing the demolition for the housing authority, was charged with detonating the explosives in two of the four buildings.

Yesterday was his sixth wedding anniversary, so the company invited his wife, Carla, 31, to put her thumbs on her husband's while he pushed the detonator's buttons.

"I didn't get nervous until the last minute," she said. "Then, I started getting sweaty palms. It was really cool to see it all so close."

Another onlooker with an interest in seeing the detonation proceed smoothly was Peggy J. Booker, 57, who works in the nearby Social Security Administration building.

"I'm hoping when they drop those four buildings, that one is still standing," she said, pointing to her office. "If I'm going to lose my job, I'm going to stand here and watch it."

Moments after the implosions, onlookers dispersed, but many planned to meet in the afternoon for a party on Pennsylvania Avenue featuring jazz bands. Other former Murphy Homes residents planned private gatherings.

As Marshall DuVall slowly walked away, pulling his granddaughter in a red wagon, he reflected on the significance of what he'd witnessed.

"I came to see the destruction of old Baltimore," DuVall said. "You don't get to see this every day in your life."

Pub Date: 7/04/99

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