Sixty years ago, they were sturdy monuments to America's work ethic and resolve. Now they stand as faded, red-brick tombstones marking the final, troubled days of a once-proud community.
The demolition of 105 apartment buildings at the Villages of Tall Trees on Baltimore County's east side began yesterday amid speeches and hope for the public park that will replace the buildings as part of a huge revitalization project.
For some, the demolition offered a reason to celebrate with complimentary hot coffee and doughnuts on a cold, rain-soaked morning in Essex. Others took the event more personally.
Debbie Munden, a Tall Trees resident for four years, watched as County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, sitting at the controls of a quarter-ton excavator, bashed in the front of 1646 Old Eastern Ave. A cheer went up from the crowd of officials, east-side residents and merchants as bricks and roofing surrendered to the giant metal claw.
"I have lived in Tall Trees for four years, and move to a new home Friday," said Munden, 43. "To me and my teen-age daughter, this place has meant shootings at two, three o'clock in the morning and nothing but problems. My neighbor was beaten half-senseless with an aluminum baseball bat. We're going to a better place."
Harry Holt shared his neighbor's feelings. Now 72 and retired, he felt liberated by the demolition work.
"I spent 20 years of my life here, and it's good for this place to just go away," said Holt. "It kept getting worse - the crime, the buildings, some of the people who lived here just didn't care, the same for a lot of the property owners. I am one person glad to see this day."
Some felt a tinge of sadness at the loss of a place that had served such a noble purpose: housing defense workers at the Glenn L. Martin defense plant during World War II and later, young couples starting their lives together.
"These were built as Mars Estates then, named after a Martin aircraft," said John R. Breihan, chairman of the history department at Loyola College in Baltimore. "The formula was a good new one - parking pads, circular drives, generous amounts of trees. There were even designated drying yards for clothes.
"And people who faced crisis after crisis, from the Great Depression through the war, lived in Mars Estates and Tall Trees and made incredible sacrifices," said Breihan. "Like the buildings they lived in, they put up with hardships, they made the long slog."
Officials say the 840 apartments will be gone by mid-September. Of the 105 buildings at Tall Trees, five have not been sold to the county. Negotiations with the owners of those buildings continue.
The 52-acre park will be near WaterView, a new community of individual homes at the headwaters of Middle River. The park also will be close to a planned waterfront destination composed of restaurants, shops and a promenade in a marina setting that officials hope will attract boaters, local residents and visitors.
Officials say that over the course of seven years, they have committed more than $800 million in state and county funds for the revitalization of the eastern county waterfront. Other planned improvements include extending White Marsh Boulevard almost to Martin State Airport by 2005, adding more detached homes and attracting new businesses.
Yesterday, Ruppersberger said the demolition work will usher in a new era for the county.
"In the not-too-distant future, all these boarded-up, falling-apart buildings will be gone," Ruppersberger said. "What will remain is a beautiful, green, tree-laden place where you and your children and grandchildren can walk, eat a picnic lunch, toss a Frisbee and read a book."
In recent years, Tall Trees deteriorated into a hub of drug-dealing, prostitution and violence. The units were substandard, with small rooms and no central air conditioning.
Since spring 1999, when officials announced they would purchase Tall Trees, the county Office of Community Conservation has helped 369 families relocate; most have remained on the east side. Officials said 23 families bought their first homes after leaving Tall Trees; 92 families have not been relocated.
The Tall Trees cost: $17 million.
Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat, said he detected little nostalgia for the complex. The money being spent on the project, he said, is a wise investment in the future.
"I haven't heard from one person who moved from Tall Trees who wanted to come back," Collins said. "Recapturing open space in older neighborhoods across the county has become quite daunting. People in this community are looking at a fundamental change, a good change, to their neighborhood."
During the last years of Tall Trees, officials attempted to revive the complex with a community center containing social services, a police substation and medical care. A wrought-iron fence was installed around the perimeter of the development, ostensibly to keep out nonresidents and to help corner suspected criminals fleeing police.
The fence was officially called a "defensible space plan." But by that point, many agreed, Tall Trees had changed from a once-peaceful neighborhood into a compound where all one could do was survive.