Goodbye to a place that many called home

Residents remember good times and bad in Flag House Courts

February 11, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

The demolition yesterday of Flag House Courts took only seconds, but for former tenants of the East Baltimore public housing site, the event symbolized years - in some cases decades - of a way of life that many now say never should have been.

With the controlled collapse of Flag House Courts' three 13-story buildings, Baltimore became the first major U.S. city to tear down all its high-rise public housing complexes for families.

Last year, then-U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo said in a speech here that the high-rises "should never have been built."

Before the demolition, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, echoed that sentiment, saying: "We never should have had families in these high-rise communities."

But debating the merits of such public housing sites wasn't on the minds of former tenants like Evelyn Rice and her daughter, Sheila Rosemond, who joined an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people yesterday morning in watching a bit of history. What mattered to former tenants was witnessing the demolition of a place they had called home.

Before the demolition, Rice, 57, reminisced about how thankful she was to get an apartment in Flag House Courts in 1970, when her children were 2 and 4. The two-bedroom apartment she rented for about $80 a month was an improvement on the one-bedroom apartment the three had shared on North Avenue.

Rosemond, 35, fondly recalled getting new roller skates every year at Flag House Courts and the camaraderie that existed during her 13 years there. "In the 107 Building when we first moved there, it was like having a big family on your floor," Rosemond said. "Everybody stuck together. We borrowed stuff from each other. We played together. Everybody listened to everybody else's mom because they might discipline you."

Rosemond remembers other good times at Flag House Courts, which was built in 1955. "They built up a recreation center when we got older," she said. "It was kind of like being a latchkey kid. We'd go there and do our homework, they gave us snacks, and I had my first experience with Girl Scouts there. I remember going on `Corned Beef Row' getting sandwiches. The owners didn't live in our neighborhood, but they treated us with respect."

Of course, she can't forget the bad times, which are ingrained like a recurring nightmare.

"I lost a lot of friends down there," she said. "The older guys that had already graduated from high school when we were in junior high, unfortunately they got hooked up into drugs and gangs, and some of them got shot and killed."

For many former tenants, the demolition was hard to watch.

"Now that it happened, it feels like somebody died," Rice said.

Renee Terry and Caroline Raymond, former tenants who hadn't seen each other in more than five years, hugged tightly. Some former residents cried. A few men said they "almost" did.

"I've seen a lot of lives coming through there. Some didn't make it," said Terry, 38, a 17-year resident. "But there have been a lot of successful people coming out of there, a lot of successful people."

As the three buildings fell in succession about 8:10 a.m., people cheered, snapped pictures and clapped. Afterward, former tenants posed for group photos.

Before the demolition, a man led a small crowd in singing a popular song at sporting events: "Nah, nah, nah, nah - nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, hey, goodbye."

One man quipped: "If the Marriott [the new Inner Harbor hotel] comes down with it, y'all gonna be in a lot of trouble."

The Robert Clay Co., a Baltimore firm, was general contractor on the $5.2 million project. Controlled Demolition Inc. of Phoenix in Baltimore County demolished the buildings at a cost of about $500,000, Robert L. Clay Sr. said.

Housing officials had said the demolition would begin at 8 a.m., but a brief program, which included speeches and a song, delayed it 10 minutes. About nine seconds after the first of four loud booms, the buildings began collapsing, leaving behind a dust cloud and tons of bricks.

Lloyd Williams, 36, never lived in Flag House Courts, but he and sons Lloyd Jr., 14, Lance, 9, and Luther, 3, braved yesterday's wind to watch the demolition. "I used to come down here, but I was afraid to drive near the place because of stories I had heard."

Plans call for a 338-unit rowhouse and apartment community, including rental and ownership properties, to replace Flag House Courts. Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said in an interview that the city has financing issues to work out. "It'll be 12 to 18 months before you see some construction," he said.

Janice Bradley, 44, a former tenant, said she plans to go back when the new units are constructed. After the demolition, she attended a breakfast party at Pleasant View Gardens.

At the breakfast, Wanda Carvens, 31, clung tightly to two souvenir bricks. She said the demolition brought tears to her eyes.

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