`Hope' is a program, street, state of mind

Homes: Former residents of Baltimore's high-rise public housing are excited about the communities built to replace it.

July 11, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson and Laurie Willis | M. Dion Thompson and Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Mary Holmes has seen the best and worst of public housing.

People treated her like family when she moved into the George B. Murphy Homes a quarter-century ago. And she became a mother figure to the neighborhood. It was a comfortable role for Holmes, mother of 12, grandmother of 31, great-grandmother of 41.

Over the years, she endured the terrible changes crime and poverty brought to Murphy Homes. She watched the project change from a neighborly place where children went trick-or-treating and residents set up their stereos for impromptu "block parties," to a violent place nicknamed "Murder Homes."

Now Holmes, 73, is witnessing another change in public housing.

The old project along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is gone, the land cleared of the 14-story towers where children played "drug dealer" and squatters turned empty apartments into shooting galleries. Construction crews still swarm over the 32-acre site, building a $63 million, 260-unit townhouse complex called Heritage Crossing.

Officials marked their progress last month with an open house celebration. Three families have moved in so far, slightly more than a year after construction began.

Paid for with public and private dollars, Heritage Crossing is part of the large-scale, nationwide federal effort Hope VI, Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere. The goal was to tear down and replace the nation's worst public housing. Baltimore has been a leader, the first city to demolish all of its high-rise projects.

Six were torn down. Heritage is the third to be built. The intention, in each case, is to create new, mixed-income neighborhoods that look and feel like middle-class communities.

"Hope VI? It brought this here," Holmes said one afternoon as she surveyed the site, alive with skip loaders, bulldozers and dump trucks. "It had to happen, and God knew it. He knew we needed a decent place for our people to stay."

To gauge the success of Hope VI - and the potential of Heritage Crossing - look no further than Pleasant View Gardens in East Baltimore or the Townes at the Terraces in West Baltimore, the city's first two Hope VI communities.

Neat rows of townhouses have replaced Lafayette Courts and Lexington Terrace, public high-rise housing projects that were as notorious as Murphy Homes.

They are filled today with people like Andrea Jackson, who finds strength and pride on a street named New Hope Circle; former renters such as Andre and Betty Eldridge, who bought themselves a piece of the American Dream, complete with porch and back yard.

"It was unbelievable," Jackson said of her first look inside one of the new homes at Pleasant View. "I was like, `We're going to actually have nice houses.' 'Cause in my mind the nice houses are all in the county."

As nice as the new developments are to residents such as Jackson, they fall far short of meeting the needs of poor people in the city. Many who once lived in the decayed high-rises have been effectively excluded from the new communities and find themselves in deficient housing in bad neighborhoods.

Although the six public housing complexes razed since August 1995 had more than 4,000 units, their replacements will provide fewer than 2,000 - and only about half will be purely public housing. The rest will be owner-occupied townhouses and market-rate rentals beyond the means of former tenants.

"I think that [Hope VI] was hijacked and turned into a program to primarily provide cities with monies for urban renewal," said Barbara Samuels, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland.

Pleasant View was completed in the fall of 1997. Two years later, the first residents moved into the Terraces. In addition to Heritage Crossing, new communities will replace Broadway Homes, Flag House Courts and Hollander Ridge. All projects in the $426 million program should be completed in the next three or four years.

For those fortunate enough to have found homes in Pleasant View and the Terraces, life is much better, much safer than in the violent days of the high-rises.

The Terraces

The change in landscape along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is so striking, so complete, it is hard to remember the forbidding towers of Lexington Terrace that once stood there on the west side of downtown.

Gone are the trash-strewn, claustrophobic streets. Now the streets are clean and quiet. Two-story rowhouses give the area a simple, standard Baltimore look, though white picket fences adorn some porches.

Across West Saratoga Street, the Parren J. Mitchell business park, housing a Rite-Aid, offices and headquarters for the housing authority police, completes the neighborhood.

Andre Eldridge, 43, and his wife, Betty, 45, bought their home at the Terraces three years ago. They had been living in Cedonia in East Baltimore in a one-bedroom apartment that cost them $409 a month.

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